Voting in 2014

Bipartisan Effort in Congress to Strengthen Voting Rights Act While Political Parties Battle in Swing States Over Efforts to Restrict Voting

In his January 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama announced two bipartisan efforts to modernize elections. The Presidential Commission on Election Administration presented Obama with recommendations designed to improve all voters’ experience in casting their ballots, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress introduced a bill to strengthen the Voting Rights Act. In contrast to these efforts to expand voting access, laws and rules in pivotal swing states have been put in place that restrict registration and voting that go beyond the voter identification requirements that have caused intense partisan battles.


In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act putting into law the 15th Amendment’s guarantee of the right to vote free from racial discrimination. This country has made significant gains in voting rights since that time due in a large part to the landmark Voting Rights Act. In June 2013, though, a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the coverage formula of Section 5 of the Act ruling that Congress had not taken into account the nation’s racial progress when singling out states for federal oversight. Section 5 of the Act required jurisdictions with significant histories of voter discrimination to “pre-clear,” that is, get federal approval from the Department of Justice (DOJ), for any new voting practices or procedures, and to show that they do not have a discriminatory effect. Within hours of the Supreme Court’s decision, some Southern states began putting in effect voting changes that had been blocked by DOJ and federal courts such as strict voter ID laws and reduction of opportunities for early voting. DOJ had blocked these proposed changes on the grounds that they would disproportionately affect the elderly, and black and Hispanic voters.


However, on January 16, 2014, Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and others introduced a bill to strengthen the Voting Rights Act. The bill’s key provisions:

- Require jurisdictions with a recent record of repeated Voting Rights Act violations to pre-clear election law changes; although there are new mechanisms to bring more states under preclearance through litigation, for now it appears that only Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas would be required to pre-clear.

- Expand the current “bail-in” procedures which allow courts to subject jurisdictions to preclearance.

- Create a uniform requirement to inform voters of pending voting changes.

- Allow federal observers to monitor elections to ensure compliance with laws protecting the rights of Americans who speak limited English.


But while this national effort to expand voting rights is being worked on in Congress, some states have passed measures making it harder to vote. Republicans in Ohio and Wisconsin in early 2014 passed measures limiting the time polls are open. In February, the Ohio legislature voted to reduce early voting by one week, do away with registering and voting on the same day prior to Election Day, and place new restrictions on absentee ballot applications. In March, the Wisconsin legislature passed a bill to shorten early voting and cut it out completely on weekends; weekend times are favored by low-income and black voters. And North Carolina has passed the most restrictive voting laws in the country. In all, nine states have passed measures making it harder to vote. Democrats have filed federal and state lawsuits to counter the measures, including DOJ lawsuits against North Carolina and Texas. With all the legislative and legal action it remains unclear how much of an impact the Republican strategy will have. Research Design Associates has been active in the voting rights arena since the late 1980s. Next week, I’ll write about how our research scientists have been involved in some of the recent voting controversies.


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