This may have been an "off" year for voting, without a national election, but state politicians kept busy in 2013 with attempts to make it harder to vote. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the biggest blow voting rights in decades, gutting a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Yet from the streets to the court, voter protection advocates stayed busy too, working to ensure elections are free, fair and accessible for all people. As 2013 winds down, here are the top five voting rights battles of the year.
5. Florida tries to reduce voting help for seniors and immigrants. Near the end of Florida's legislative session, senators snuck in an amendment to deny seniors, people with disabilities and people needing language assistance much-needed election help at the polls. The proposal required a voter to know the person assisting them in order to receive help. It also limited the number of voters whom an assistor may help to no more than 10 during any election. These restrictions would have had dire consequences for Florida's communities of color, including many Latino and Haitian-American citizens who routinely depend on language assistance from community-based poll monitors and voter protection advocates. It would have also impaired the work of community organizations, whose assistors generally help more than 10 voters in any given election -- whether or not they are personally acquainted. After a coalition of civil rights organizations (including Advancement Project, Florida New Majority, the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, and the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, among others) sent a robust sign-on letter opposing the law to all 40 Senators and all 67 Supervisor of Elections, drawing state and national media, the amendment was roundly defeated in two weeks.
4. The Justice Department messes with Texas redistricting. The Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder, striking down the coverage formula for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, made it easier for states to forge ahead with laws restricting the vote. As states with the worst records of voter discrimination no longer have to submit voting changes for review, lawmakers across the country have acted with alarming speed to push through new voting restrictions. Texas waited just two hours after the Shelby ruling to announce that the state would begin enforcing its voter ID law, which had previously been blocked under Section 5, and that its discriminatory redistricting plan would also go into effect. The U.S. Department of Justice hit back with lawsuits against both measures - under Sections 2 and 3 of the Voting Rights Act -- showing the Supreme Court's ruling does not mean that it's open season on voters.
3. Advocates Challenge Voter ID laws in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. After it was temporarily put on hold before the 2012 presidential election and the 2013 primary, advocates went back to court over Pennsylvania's voter ID law. Attorneys from Advancement Project and co-counsel made the case for permanently overturning the measure, which requires strict forms of unexpired photo ID to vote. The evidence showed that, 16 months after the law's passage, the state had issued fewer than 17,000 free IDs for voting -- a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of registered Pennsylvania voters who still needed them. In light of state officials clearly being in over their heads, a judge blocked the law again from going into effect until the trial court makes a final decision.
Advancement Project also challenged Wisconsin's voter ID law in federal court this year. The most compelling evidence of its racially discriminatory impact came from witnesses, such as Lorene Hutchins, a 93-year-old African American who testified about being born at home in Mississippi and lacking the birth certificate needed to get a state ID. Her 70-year old daughter spent more than $2,000, in order to track down her mother's birth certificate, and her own -- for their right to vote. A decision is expected in 2014.
2. Virginia makes history on voting rights restoration. Virginia had long held the dishonorable distinction of being one of just four states -- alongside Florida, Kentucky and Iowa - to permanently strip the right to vote from people with prior felony convictions. This includes men and women who work, have families, pay taxes and live in our communities, yet have no voice in our democracy. For years grassroots advocates -- including Holla Back & Restore Project, S.O.B.E.R. House and Bridging the Gap in Virginia -have worked tirelessly to elevate the issue, forcing politicians to confront it. Thanks to their efforts, Virginia finally began to loosen its grip on its felony disenfranchisement law this year, when Gov. Bob McDonnell announced an automatic process to restore voting rights to people with nonviolent felony convictions who have completed their entire sentence.
1. North Carolina grows a movement. North Carolina's 2013 legislative session was marred by an avalanche of regressive bills, including measures to reject federal funding for expanding Medicaid, and to drastically slash the state's Pre-Kindergarten program for poor families. The General Assembly also passed the worst voter suppression law in the country, including provisions to: enforce a strict voter ID requirement; cut early voting by a full week; eliminate same-day registration; allow voters to be challenged by any registered voter in the same county, rather than precinct; expanding the number of challengers at the polls; ban 16 and 17-year-olds from pre-registering to vote; and prevent counties from extending poll hours to accommodate long lines.
These extreme bills were exposed and opposed by a multiracial, grassroots coalition led by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II and the North Carolina NAACP State Conference. In what's known as the Forward Together Movement, Rev. Dr. Barber led thousands of North Carolinians in weekly "Moral Monday" mass protests outside the General Assembly, with more than 930 people arrested in civil disobedience by the session's end. The movement, however, also had a legal strategy. Just hours after North Carolina's voter suppression law was signed, Advancement Project filed a lawsuit challenging the measure on behalf of the North Carolina NAACP State Conference. The North Carolina NAACP will seek a preliminary injunction in the summer of 2014, with the full trial scheduled for 2015.