November 5, 2016

The return of the poll tax

Huffington Post - 2016 is the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County V. Holder gutted section 5 of the VRA, removing the critical tool of “preclearance” in combating racial discrimination in voting. Under Section 5, states and localities with a history of racial discrimination in voting had to seek approval from the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court before implementing any changes to their voting laws and procedures to ensure fairness. With preclearance gone, that is no longer the case and states with a history of discrimination now have free rein to change their voting laws without prior approval.

As everyone’s favorite octogenarian Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote in her dissent in Shelby, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Since the high court’s decision, states have been emboldened to pass voting restrictions. All told, in 2016, 14 states will have new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election (six of those states were previously covered by Section 5). The number was 17 as recently as July, but recent court rulings blocked some restrictive measures. Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled voter ID laws in Texas to be a violation of the Voting Rights Act because they discriminated against minority voters. A similar ruling was reached in Wisconsin, allowing voters without proper identification access to the polls. In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit struck down the North Carolina voter ID law and reinstated one week of early voting. And just this week, a federal judge called North Carolina’s purging of the voter rolls “insane.” She argued it “sounds like something that was put together in 1901,” calling to mind the Jim Crow era (a ruling is expected at any moment, and time is running out).

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