A Huge Setback in the Struggle for Civil Rights in America

Homeless people in Ohio care about voting rights and the Voting Rights Act.  In Cleveland, around 78% of the homeless population are African American, and there are similar numbers in most of the large American cities.  The VRA is important because homeless people do vote, and NEOCH has always made voting a priority issue.   We have been engaged in a lawsuit with the State of Ohio over identification issues since 2006, and we are working to extend that lawsuit for the next few years to protect access to voting in person on Election Day for those without identification in the statewide election of 2014 and the national 2016 Presidential Election. 

On June 25, 2013, the United States Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was overwhelmingly renewed by Congress in 2006.  According to the Supreme Court across the United States we have fulfilled the goals of equal access to the ballot box and the main section of the Voting Rights Act is not needed.  This despite the mountain of evidence that communities regularly purge voter roles (sometimes in error) thus cancelling the registrations of minority voters or reducing polling places in certain neighborhoods forcing minority votes to wait hours to cast a ballot. This law has often been viewed as one of the most successful in American history and maintains strong support in most of the United States.  While the issue before the court will have dramatic impact on the nine Southern states who had a history of poll taxes, suppression, and manipulation of the voting laws to disenfranchise voters, it will weaken minority voting power across the United States. 

We have seen dramatic increases since 1998 in gerrymandering, limiting voter registration activities, disenfranchising felons, and limiting voting by putting in place restrictions directed at minority and low income voters such as ID requirements.  With super computers never envisioned in 1965 now able to carve up districts in order to push all minorities into a small number of districts, it is much easier to discriminate in the voting booth.  For example, the mostly white Ohio state legislature divided up the state into four minority federal Congressional districts such as the one that meanders across Toledo all along the lake to expand again into Cleveland or the one which starts on the east side of Cleveland and then moves down to Akron in order to blunt the impact of minority voters.  These nine states with a history of voting shenanigans as recently as 2012 will not have to ask the Justice department to make any changes in voting procedures or laws, and it will be necessary for a disenfranchised voter to go to court after they were denied the chance to vote. They will have to prove in court that the identification laws, purging of the voter roles, or moving of a polling place to a distant part of the ward is based on a racist motivation.  Having struggled with the state for years on the ID lawsuit, we know what a big hurdle this is to sustain over six years.   How many will have access to attorneys who are willing to stick with this for a decade with little shot of compensation in the end. 

The US Supreme Court overturned a law repeatedly passed by the legislative branch and supported by the every President since 1965.  They declared that Congress needs to update the law with new maps knowing that in a dysfunctional Congress this will be impossible.  They know that no state will want to be put on this list that they have to get clearance from the Justice Department before changing state or local voting rules.  The Supreme Court did not accept that there was a way for a community to petition to be let out of the oversight if they could prove they have not engaged in racist behavior for 10 years.  Instead of keeping the law in place while Congress made changes, they threw open the door to allow any voter suppression activity to be passed by mostly white state legislatures.  These former Confederate states can then put state resources into defending these voter disenfranchisement activities in court against individual challenges. 

Maybe this will prompt Congress to adjust the pre-coverage maps to include all the states that have engaged in racist voting laws.  Maybe states like Ohio which have reduced the power of minority voters will be included in a future voting law.  Maybe there will be renewed effort to get a national voting law in place to protect voters access to the polls everywhere.  Maybe the Palestinian conflict will be resolved.  Maybe the dreams of Tiananmen Square will be realized.  Maybe West Virginia officials will accept a carbon tax and realize coal is a dirty form of energy.  All of these seem impossible at this point in our history, but who would have ever predicted that Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi would be serving in her country's legislature and Muammar al Gaddafi would be violently overthrown.

Brian Davis

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