Analysis Law and Policy

The Simple and Insidious Way John Roberts Could Gut The Voting Rights Act

Jessica Mason Pieklo

There's a lot to be worried about when it comes to the Voting Rights Act, including the Chief Justice saving face.

One of the lasting impressions from the Supreme Court battle over Obamacare was that Chief Justice Roberts managed to craft an opinion that politically saved face for both the administration and the court but was able to deliver a potentially deadly blow to the federal-state partnerships many social programs depend on. We have every reason to think he’s poised to do something similar with the Voting Rights Act.

Shelby County v. Holder takes on directly the most successful components of the VRA. The parts of the law at issue, Sections 4 and 5, require certain state, counties, cities, and local subdivisions with a history of racial discrimination in their elections to get clearance from Washington before they put into effect any change in their election or voting procedures. Section 5 establishes pre-clearance procedure and Section 4 sets the formula, or the trigger, for which jurisdictions need that pre-clearance. Section 5 gets all the attention because it is the most obvious in addressing systemic racial discrimination in that it takes away local power of self-governance from those municipalities where the evidence shows that power was abused to disenfranchise minorities. Conservatives hate it because, issues of racial animus aside, it offends every bit of their understanding of the division of power between the federal government and the states.

But it’s not Section 5 of the VRA we should be worried about. It’s Section 4. The Roberts court has an out that would have almost equally devastating consequences as striking the law entirely, but allow the Chief Justice to avoid having his legacy tied to killing off the VRA. One of the main critiques of the VRA is that Section 4 uses data from 1972 as its base to determine what jurisdictions are covered and subject to pre-clearance. In Northwest Austin v. Holder, the voting rights challenge from four years ago, Justice Roberts focused much of his ire with the coverage formula, suggesting that while the overall contours of the VRA may still have some relevance in combating racial discrimination in voting, the court was very skeptical of any conclusions that could be drawn from data that old. This time around the court could strike Section 4 and say that Section 5 can only be enforced if this coverage formula is updated. This would kick the issue back to Congress, and if the fight for the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act is any indication, we all know how that would turn out. Section 5 would stand, but it would be gutted, effectively unenforceable until Congress could agree on a new formula for which states need election monitoring.
 
The immediate effects alone would be disastrous. As Ari Berman breaks down, six of the nine fully covered states under Section 5 have passed new voting restrictions, including Voter ID laws, limits on early voting and restrictions on voter registration since 2010. By comparison, non-covered jurisdictions passed only one-third of those kinds of restrictions. It also matters because many of these states, like Texas and Virginia in particular, are on the cusp of significant electoral change that could shift power away from conservatives—presuming no efforts to restrict voting are permanent of course.

During the argument Justice Elena Kagan observed that those challenging the VRA were asking a conservative court, not Congress who is charged with holding hearings and creating conclusions of fact, to decide that racial discrimination in voting had been solved—an extraordinarily undemocratic request in many ways. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that while the South has come far from the early days of Jim Crow, as a country there was a lot of work that remained. But it was Justice Sonia Sotomayor who was the most vocal in defending not just the civil rights legislation generally, but the principles of racial equality supporting it, taking Justice Scalia’s racism head-on.

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It just so happens Shelby v. Holder was argued on the same day a memorial was finally dedicated to Rosa Parks and 91 years after the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the 19th Amendment. In a political climate where conservatives are singularly focused on passing laws that fall most heavily on women of color, low-income families, and minority populations, the women of the court show they understand the stakes. Unfortunately, too, so did Justice Roberts.

News Law and Policy

Voting Rights Advocates Notch Another Win, This Time in Texas

Imani Gandy

This makes two voting rights victories in as many days for voting rights advocates. A federal judge on Tuesday in Wisconsin ruled that voters who unable to comply with the state's photo ID requirement would be allowed to vote in the November's election.

The ultra-conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a surprising victory for voting rights advocates, ruled that Texas’s voter ID law disproportionately burdened Black and Hispanic voters in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965.

The decision means Texas can’t enforce the law in November’s presidential election.

Wednesday’s ruling was the latest in a convoluted legal challenge to the Texas law, which conservative lawmakers passed in 2011 and is among the most stringent voter ID laws in the nation. Voting rights advocates challenged the measure almost immediately, and the law remained blocked until the Roberts Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder revived it.

The Court in Shelby struck down a key provision of the VRA, Section 4, which is the coverage formula used to determine which states must get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or the District Court for the District of Columbia under Section 5 of the VRA before making any changes to their election laws. States with a history of racially discriminatory voting requirements like Texas were covered by the Section 4 pre-clearance requirement before the Shelby decision.

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Within hours of the Court’s ruling in Shelby, Texas officials announced that they would begin enforcing SB 14, the restrictive voter ID law.

In response, a group of Texas voters sued Texas under a different portion of the civil rights law, arguing SB 14 violates Section 2 of the VRA, which forbids voting procedures that discriminate on the basis of race. Unlike Section 5 of the VRA, which requires state officials prove a voting rights law has no discriminatory intent or effect, under Section 2, the burden of proving racial discriminatory intent or effect is placed on voters to prove the restriction discriminated against their voting rights.

Both the district court and a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit agreed and found that SB 14 had a discriminatory affect in violation of Section 2 of the VRA. Texas then requested that the Fifth Circuit rehear the case en banc, with the full slate of judges on the Fifth Circuit.

The full Fifth Circuit issued that decision Wednesday, handing Texas conservatives a decisive loss.

“The record shows that drafters and proponents of SB 14 were aware of the likely disproportionate effect of the law on minorities, and that they nonetheless passed the bill without adopting a number of proposed ameliorative measures that might have lessened this impact,” Judge Catharina Haynes wrote for the majority.

Texas claimed that it had modeled its law after Indiana’s law, which was upheld in another challenge, Crawford v. Marion County Election Board. The Fifth Circuit, however, rejected Texas’s argument, finding obvious differences between the two laws that affected its decision that Texas’s law had a discriminatory impact on people of color.

“While cloaking themselves in the mantle of following Indiana’s voter ID law, which had been upheld against a (different) challenge in Crawford, the proponents of SB 14 took out all the ameliorative provisions of the Indiana law,” Haynes wrote.

One such ameliorative provision was an indigency exception, which the GOP-dominated Texas house stripped from the law. That exception would have freed indigent people from any obligation of paying fees associated with obtaining a qualified photo ID.

Although the Fifth Circuit found that the law violates the Voting Rights Act, the Fifth Circuit did not fashion a remedy for this violation and instead, remanded the case back to the lower court, instructing it that the “remedy must be tailored to rectify only the discriminatory effect on those voters who do not have SB 14 ID or are unable to reasonably obtain such identification.”

In addition, the appeals court reversed the lower court ruling that Texas had intended to discriminate against racial minorities. The court found evidence to support such a claim, but ultimately found that the district court’s overall findings were insufficient, and sent the case back to the district court to reconsider the evidence.

Nevertheless, voting rights advocates hailed the decision as a victory.

“We have repeatedly proven—using hard facts—that the Texas voter ID law discriminates against minority voters,” Gerry Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center and an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement, according to the Texas Tribune. “The 5th Circuit’s full panel of judges now agrees, joining every other federal court that has reviewed this law. We are extremely pleased with this outcome.”

Texas Republicans, including former governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry, rushed the law through the GOP-majority legislature in 2011, arguing that it was necessary to prevent voter fraud, even though voter fraud has been found to be almost nonexistent in other Republican-led investigations.

Politifact found in March of this year that since 2002, there had been 85 election fraud prosecutions, and not all of them resulted in convictions. To put that in perspective, from 2000 to 2014, some 72 million ballots were cast in Texas, not counting municipal and local elections.

Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, argued in 2015 that most of the Texas prosecutions would not have been prevented by the voter ID law, since the prosecutions were not for in-person voter fraud, but rather for marking someone else’s absentee ballots without their consent, fake registrations, or voting while ineligible.

“There are vanishingly few instances of voter fraud—incidents flat-out, not just prosecutions—that could be stopped by applying a rule requiring ID at the polls,” Levitt said, according to Politifact.

Opponents of SB 14 cited the near absence of proven in-person voter fraud, arguing that the law was intended to dilute the voting strength of the state’s increasing population of people of color, many of whom do not have photo identification and who would find it difficult to obtain it, as the opinion noted.

Laws requiring photo identification disparately impact people of color, students, and low-income voters, all groups who tend to vote for Democrats rather than Republicans.

Nevertheless, Texas conservatives continue to insist that the law was appropriately tailored to address voter fraud. “Voter fraud is real, and it undermines the integrity of the process,” said Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in a statement on Wednesday, according to the Texas Tribune.

Texas may appeal to the Supreme Court and ask the high court to intervene, although given that the Roberts Court remains short one judge, a 4-4 split is possible, which would leave in place the Fifth Circuit’s ruling.

This makes two voting rights victories in as many days for voting rights advocates. A federal judge on Tuesday in Wisconsin ruled that voters who unable to comply with the state’s photo ID requirement would nevertheless be allowed to vote in the upcoming election in November.

Analysis Politics

Conservative Attacks on Voting and Abortion Rights Share Tactics, Goals

Ally Boguhn

The pushes for voting and abortion restrictions use similar tactics, slowly eroding the rights of women, people of color, and those with low incomes in particular.

During a May interview with the Texas Observer‘s Alexa Garcia-Ditta, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards didn’t skip a beat when pointing to the likely effect of voting restrictions.

“One of the greatest challenges, absolutely, in the state of Texas is the enormous hurdles that people have to go through to vote, and the fact that in the last election, we were 50th in voter turnout of 50 states,” said Richards. “That’s appalling. When 28 percent of the voters go to the polls, the democratic process isn’t working, it’s completely broken. I believe we have to completely address voting rights in this country, and in Texas.”

Texas is one of 17 states to implement new voting restrictions, such as voter identification laws and reduced early voting, for the first time during the 2016 presidential election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute at New York University’s School of Law. Those states include Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Voting and Abortion Restrictions

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“This is part of a broader movement to curtail voting rights, which began after the 2010 election, when state lawmakers nationwide started introducing hundreds of harsh measures making it harder to vote,” explains the Brennan Center’s website. “Overall, 22 states have new restrictions in effect since the 2010 midterm election.”

The Republican-led charge to roll back voting rights has been fairly transparent in its goal of suppressing Democratic votes, specifically targeting voters of color and those living in poverty—a goal only made easier after the Supreme Court gutted parts of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that safeguarded against these strategies in a 2013 decision.

In April, Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-WI) told a local news network that his state’s new voter ID law would make “a difference” in electing members of his party in November. And he is hardly the first Republican to admit that the party is utilizing this strategy in order to gain power.

Efforts to enact voting restrictions have begun to gain steam, increasingly in many of the same places where abortion restrictions are also being passed. And reproductive rights and justice advocates are taking notice. NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2012 noted that efforts to chip away at voting rights effectively silence the ability of many to weigh in on decisions regarding their bodies.

“Americans defend the right to choose by lobbying their elected officials, taking action in their communities, and participating in the public debate, but no single deed is as central to the civic process as the simple act of casting a vote,” Nancy Keenan, then president of NARAL, said in a statement announcing the decision. “That is why recent efforts to restrict citizens’ access to the ballot box are so dangerous. These measures threaten to deny millions of Americans the right to vote, silencing their voices as the nation debates our most cherished freedoms, including the right of every woman to make personal decisions regarding the full range of reproductive choices.”

Ilyse Hogue, NARAL’s current president, reaffirmed this commitment after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision on the VRA, explaining in a statement that year that the organization believes “that participation in the political process is a constitutional right that empowers Americans to elect leaders who represent their interests in important areas such as reproductive rights.”

When thousands joined the Moral March in Raleigh, North Carolina in February 2014 to protest conservative policies such as the state’s restrictive voter suppression laws, Planned Parenthood was among the event’s 150 coalition partners. In a piece for the Huffington Post, Richards explained why it was imperative for her organization to get involved.

“For Planned Parenthood, the ideology behind these measures is all too familiar. They were put in place by politicians who would rather transport us through a time warp where only the privileged few have access to fundamental American rights,” wrote Richards. “Many of those states [passing voting restrictions] are the same ones passing restriction after restriction on women’s access to health care.”

“The history of our country shows that we are better off when everyone has a voice in our political process. We continue to stand with our partners in calling for laws that make it easier—not harder—to vote,” Richards continued.

As the aftermath of the 2010 midterm elections brought a wave of voting restrictions, a crush of anti-choice laws similarly swept the country. Since those elections, an unprecedented 288 state-level abortion restrictions have been enacted.

“To put that number in context, states adopted nearly as many abortion restrictions during the last five years (288 enacted 2011-2015) as during the entire previous 15 years (292 enacted 1995-2010),” Guttmacher researchers explained in a recent report outlining the state of reproductive rights in the country.

The pushes for voting and abortion restrictions use similar tactics, slowly eroding the rights of women, people of color, and those with low incomes. “It’s a ‘death by 1000 cuts’ strategy,” Heather Gerken, a professor at Yale Law School, told MSNBC of the two issues in 2014. “For both of these rights, you’re not allowed to ban it. So in each instance you’re just making it harder than it would be otherwise.”

Conservatives have been able to do this by leveraging misinformation about the two issues. Abortion and voting restrictions “both address manufactured problems,” Sondra Goldschein, director of advocacy and policy at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told Rewire. “They have thinly veiled excuses for introducing them. Whether it’s unproven voter fraud or concerns about women, the legislation is clearly about taking away rights, particularly in marginalized communities.”

For example, many voting restrictions are implemented based on false claims about the prevalence of voting fraud. In Wisconsin, where as many as 300,000 registered voters stand to be disenfranchised by the state’s restrictive voter ID law, Republican Gov. Scott Walker justified suppressing the vote by citing instances of fraudulent voting. When challenged in court, the state was unable to come up with a single case of voter impersonation.

That is likely because in Wisconsin, like in the rest of the country, voter fraud is virtually nonexistent. Study after study has found little to no evidence to support the claim. An analysis conducted by the Washington Post‘s Justin Levitt in 2014 found just 31 instances of voter fraud in the more than one billion ballots cast between the years 2000 and 2014.

Many abortion restrictions are similarly based on the perpetuation of misinformation, which are often based on conservatives feigning concern for women’s health. Wisconsin provides yet another prime example of this with its 2013 targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) law, which required all doctors performing abortions in the state to obtain admitting privileges to hospitals within a 30-mile range, justified by claims of safeguarding women’s health. But when the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the law unconstitutional in 2015, Judge Richard Posner, writing for the majority, noted that the medical necessity for such laws is “nonexistent” and the regulations were instead meant to impede abortion access.

“They may do this in the name of protecting the health of women who have abortions, yet as in this case the specific measures they support may do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion,” wrote Posner.

Though it’s often clear that legislation to restrict access to the polls and abortion share similar goals and tactics—employing misinformation, attempting to dissuade people from access by making doing so too expensive or burdensome, and so on—in some cases, states are borrowing from the exact same playbooks to make laws to get their way. In Texas, where there is already a strict voter ID law, the state passed another law in 2015 requiring abortion providers to ask for “valid government record of identification” from patients to prove they are 18 before providing care. The process of obtaining a valid form of ID is often difficult, time-consuming, and expensive, especially for those in marginalized communities.

Much like the case for voting restrictions, abortion restrictions help white men maintain the status quo of power across the country. Drawing connections between between voting restrictions and TRAP laws in Texas, then-Rewire reporter Andrea Grimes, who now works for the Texas Observer, noted on the RJ Court Watch podcast that both conservative restrictions help ensure those in power maintain their positions.

“We [in Texas] have some of the strictest TRAP (targeted restrictions on abortion providers) legislation in the country. At the same time we have what one federal judge straight up called racist and unconstitutional voter ID requirements that prevent people from being able to get out to the polls and cast their votes,” said Grimes. “And these two things together kind of ensure that power stays with the powerful. That’s what we’re seeing right now here.”

“[B]oth voting rights and abortion access involve fundamental rights,” added Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire‘s vice president of law and the courts. “In theory, fundamental rights are fundamental. They are things that we all hold but really what we’re talking about is access to power. So when we place restrictions on those rights, we make it harder to exercise them—which makes it harder to effectively engage our civic power.”

When framed as a desperate attempt by the GOP to maintain a hold on their power dynamics, it comes as no surprise that many of the very same states pushing through voting restrictions are also moving to restrict abortion access. During 2015 alone, 57 abortion restrictions were enacted across the country. Of the massive push to restrict abortion since 2010, ten states enacted more than ten restrictions: Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Indiana, Alabama, and North Carolina.

These lists have remarkable crossover with the states that have enacted new voting restrictions in that same period of time: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

The end result for both kinds of restrictions is the same: a massive sweep of nationwide changes chipping away at the fundamental rights of Americans and disproportionately affecting women, communities of color, and those living in poverty.
Those pushing through these laws “are not just focusing on one state, but they are looking at creating change across the whole country, through each individual state-by-state attack on these fundamental freedoms,” explained Goldschein.

Goldschein went on to note that conservatives’ success in pushing these restrictions demonstrates the importance of voting, especially for down-ballot seats in the state legislature where many of these decisions are made. “State legislatures are ground zero in the fight for civil liberties, and they do not always attract as much attention as the debates in Congress or arguments in the Supreme Court, but in fact they are really the source of unprecedented assaults on our most fundamental rights,” she explained.

“This year … 80 percent of our state legislature seats are up for re-election, and we need voters to be paying attention to what is happening in those state legislatures and then to hold politicians accountable and vote as if their liberties depend on it—because they do—because this is where these fights are taking place.”