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Efforts under way to combat voter suppression

29th May 2012   ·   0 Comments

“A war on voting is raging in state Houses across the country but lost in this fog are real solutions to make our election system better.”

That observation, made by Zaineb Muhammed of New American Media, kicked off a teleconference on voter suppression on Tuesday, May 22, that looked at some of the efforts aimed at helping to protect the voting rights of millions of Americans that some believe may be in jeopardy leading into this fall’s presidential elections. The teleconference, held by New American Media and The Brennan Center just five days after U.S. House leaders introduced the Voter Empowerment Act, is one of a series of monthly teleconferences purported to address the issue of voting rights. It also took place four days after a DC circuit court upheld a key voting rights provision.

A federal appeals court on May 18 upheld a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, rejecting an Alabama county’s challenge to the landmark civil rights law.

The provision requires state, county and local governments with a history of discrimination to obtain advance approval from the Justice Department, or from a federal court in Washington, for any changes to election procedures. It now applies to all or parts of 16 states.

In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said that Congress developed extensive evidence of continuing racial discrimination just six years ago and reached a reasonable conclusion when it reauthorized section 5 of the law at that time.

Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center at NYU’s School of Law, praised the three-judge panel in D.C. to uphold the Voting Rights Act provision that requires advance approval from the DOJ before any changes to election procedures can be made.

“The Voting Rights Act is highly acknowledged as the most successful civil rights law in our history,” Weiser said. “It was responsible for dismantling the Jim Crow voting restrictions and continues to serve as a bulwark against that which would throw back voting rights. Its continuing need has been made especially clear this year since we witnessed the largest throwback of voting rights in decades. This was a real victory for voting rights and the reaffirmation of the continuing need to protect against discrimination in voting.”

Zaineb Muhammed of New American Media said during Tuesday’s teleconference call that the key to the bipartisan-supported Voter Empowerment Act is “voter-registration modernization, a common-sense reform that would bring our elections into the 21st century.

“First introduced by the Brennan Center in 2008, this bipartisan proposal would provide much-needed upgrades to our outdated, costly and inefficient paper-based registration system,” Muhammed continued. “Dozens of states, including New York, have already implemented or are considering implementing similar measures.”

Wendy Weiser praised Congress­man John Lewis and 123 of his colleagues in the House who introduced the Voter Empowerment Act on May 17. “This is a serious proposal that shows that Congres­sional Democratic leaders are serious about voting reform,” Weiser said. “It contains a range of improvements for our voting system that address real problems, not fictitious ones.

“Secondly, a centerpiece of the Voter Empowerment Act are steps to modernize voter registration, which is a key proposal that would solve the single-greatest problem in our election administration system and bring voter registration into the 21st century,” Weiser added. “Modernizing our voter-registration system could add more than 50 million eligible individuals to the rolls. It could create more accurate and complete voter rolls, reduce even the potential for any fraud or abuse and save states millions of dollars. This is the first time federal legislation has taken up a key and ambitious proposal.”

In a recent editorial that underscores the importance of the Voting Rights Act in 2012, Wendy Weiser wrote:

“Unfortunately, the Voting Rights Act is especially needed now. This past year has seen the biggest rollback of voting rights since the Jim Crow era. Dozens of new laws in 18 states will make it harder for eligible Americans to vote — and minorities will be especially hard hit. Ten states passed new laws requiring voters to show IDs that one in 10 Americans do not have. African Americans will face greater hurdles, since a full quarter of them do not have IDs that will be accepted for voting. Other states passed laws eliminating Sunday early voting, which was used especially by African-American and Latino churches to organize successful ‘souls to the polls’ drives in 2008. New laws hobbling community-based voter registration drives also harm minorities, who are more than twice as likely as whites to register through drives. All told, these new laws will create significant obstacles for millions of voters, and especially minorities who have been historically targeted by discriminatory voting laws.”

Why is significant reform needed?

“Our current voter-registration system is a mess,” Weiser said. “According to a recent Pew Center study, 51 million Ameri­cans, or one in four eligible individuals, is not registered to vote and 24 million registrations — one in eight records — contain inaccuracies. The biggest reason for these problems is our antiquated, paper-based voter-registration system. We currently rely on individuals to send in paper applications to register and paper forms create a litany of problems — illegible handwriting, applications lost in the mail, duplicative data entry, typos and all of the other problems that have led the rest of society to abandon paper-based systems for computers.”

Weiser said voter-registration modernization is not as harrowing a task as some might think. “It’s a proposal to use available technology to automatically register eligible citizens when they interact with government offices without relying on paper forms — with a couple of other key elements,” Weiser said. “It would keep voters registered when they move and it would allow voters and election officials to easily correct and update registration information.”

Weiser says “portable registration” would be an effective cost-cutting measure in addition to streaming the registration process, making it easier for citizens who have moved to continue to cast a ballot in their new community, provide online access for voters to update their voter-registration data and “dramatically increase the accuracy and reliability of our voter rolls.”

Weiser said if the Voter Empowerment Act is enacted, “it would not only make our voting system work much better, it would also be a real expansion of the franchise, having millions of American brought into the system so they can participate.”

This article was originally published in the May 28, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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