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Poll Taxes make Shameful Comeback in the States

11/04/2016 05:38 pm ET

This absurd election cycle is finally coming to an end. Well, as long as Donald J. Trump is okay with the outcome. From the very start, Trump has claimed that his lagging poll performance had more to do with a rigged system than, you know, his actually losing. Trump credited President Barack Obama's 2012 victory to dead voters. The Iowa caucus was stolen from Trump by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). And now, the general election is rigged. In recent days, Trump's even doubled down on that terrifying thinking, adding that he will accept the results only if he wins or feels the results are fair. (Just what constitutes as fair to Mr. Trump is unpredictable at best.)

Trump is the boy who cried "voter fraud" and I think he's setting a dangerous precedent for our electoral process. There must be respect for voters' decisions, even if they aren't our personal desired outcome. Respecting voters may seem like a novel concept, but I still believe in a peaceful transition of power between administrations. Quite frankly, it's something I'm prepared to get nasty about. This kind of fear-mongering rhetoric threatens the very cornerstone of our democracy. It's also inherently false. Study after study shows widespread voter fraud does not exist. A comprehensive investigation of more than 1 billion ballots cast in elections from 2000 to 2014 found just 31 credible allegations of voter impersonation fraud at the polls. In fact, voter fraud is less likely than being struck by lightning. But a real, legitimate threat to the franchise does exist. Voters should be concerned about the suppression of their own and others' right to vote by none other than the state and local governments for which they're casting ballots.

That's because 2016 is the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). 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).

The tactics of these new voter suppression laws vary. Some require voters to show photo identification at the polls. Others demand proof of citizenship when registering to vote, eliminate same-day registration, reduce early voting periods, limit mail-in ballots, set registration deadlines that are months before Election Day, curb voter registration drives, and more. The effects, though, are the same: across the country, it has become increasingly difficult for Americans to exercise their right to vote. In fact, a new report revealed 868 polling place closures in former VRA preclearance states. It is simply unacceptable. Politicians should not be allowed to choose their electorate, to manipulate it in such a way that not only silences voters' voices but impacts the outcome.

These attacks have an immense effect on some populations more than others, including students, the elderly, people of color, and low income Americans, as well as those living in rural communities. These are individuals who might not have driver's licenses or up to date photo identification, or a means of obtaining them. They're the folks who can't get to the polls on Election Day because of work schedules and lack of transportation. In many cases, women are also uniquely affected - we've changed our names in marriage but not our IDs, or have childcare responsibilities or work non-typical hours that prevent us from being able to get to the polls. These types of laws don't demonstrably protect against fraud. They do, however, have the potential to disenfranchise many voters.

While this election has seen its fair share of doom and gloom, the silver lining is that there are things you can do to help ensure that your right to vote - and everyone else's - is unabridged and uninterrupted. Be prepared on Election Day. Find your polling place ahead of time, plan how you'll get there, and know which forms of identification your state requires by visiting the Election Protection website. If something goes wrong or you feel your (or someone else's) voting rights are challenged, call 1-866-OUR-VOTE to report it. This hotline has been set up by the nonpartisan Election Protection coalition to ensure that all voters have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.

You can also show your support for unrestricted voting rights by contacting your members of Congress and urge them to cosponsor the Voting Rights Advancement Act to restore the protections of the VRA and ensure equal access to the ballot box.

The right to vote is exactly that - a right. It's also a privilege to be proud of. From the ratification of the 19th amendment to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, generations before us have worked hard to ensure it. Your vote is your voice. Educate yourself on the issues, volunteer to be a poll watcher or hotline staff, help carpool to the polls, and above all, make your voice heard by casting your ballot. Your rights depend on it.

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