Fight to secure the freedom to vote heats up in Congress

by | May 5, 2021 | Voting Rights

From left to right: Thomas A. Saenz, President and General Counsel, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; John C. Yang, President and Executive Director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC; Jacqueline De León, Staff Attorney, Native American Rights Fund; Wendy Weiser, Director of the Democracy Program, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law; Hilary O. Shelton, Director, Washington Bureau/Senior Vice Preisdent for Advocacy and Policy, NAACP

Also available in Spanish.

Two key bills would set national standards for voting access and strengthen protections against racial discrimination at the ballot box in America.

By: Jenny Manrique

While legislators in 47 states have introduced nearly 400 bills that seek to restrict voting rights, two key initiatives are being considered in Congress to strengthen access to the polls and protect against racial discrimination.

For the People Act, and the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, are initiatives that seek to prevent foreign interference in elections, limit the influence of money on politics, and modernize infrastructure to increase electoral security. They also establish nonpartisan redistricting commissions, a 15-day early voting period for all federal elections, and expanded access to voting by mail and automatic voter registration, among other provisions.

“These bills are critical to stopping the scourge of vote suppression that is facing our country today, and to protecting the freedom to vote going forward,” said Wendy Weiser, Vice President of Democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, during a press briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services.

“Voting rights in America are under attack as they haven’t been since the Jim Crow era, and the push to restrict access to voting in state legislatures is unprecedented,” she added.

The Brennan Center has been tracking more than 360 bills that have already been signed into law in states like Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa and Utah and are aggressively moving toward approval in others like Arizona, Texas, Michigan and New Hampshire.

These laws seek to tighten voter identification requirements, make voter registration more difficult, and expand voter list purges – all measures that particularly affect ethnic communities. In most cases, these local initiatives have been justified in “false narratives about supposed voter fraud, without a shred of evidence,” said Thomas Saenz, President and General Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). 

“When (political) leaders seeking to retain power and knowing they do not have the support of the growing Latino community, they take steps to suppress the vote,” added Saenz. The growth of the Hispanic vote in places like Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, was decisive for the Democratic triumph in those states in 2020.

Asian Americans, African Americans, and other minorities also saw an unprecedented rise in voter turnout.

In states like Texas, Latinos already make up 40% of the population. After the census results, the state won two more representatives in the House. If Hispanic turnout at the polls follows the numbers seen in past elections, their vote could contribute to another blue victory for those new seats.

“In parts of our country, primarily the South, but also including the State of Texas, we must anticipate that if there is a new community reaching critical mass to threaten the (local) powers, there is a need to have in place protections including pre clearance review requirements,” Saenz said.

The section V of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 established that states could not approve changes in voting rules without federal authorization. But that section was overthrown by a 2013 Supreme Court decision, which has allowed discriminatory practices against minorities, the elderly and youth.

Saenz argues that in the case of Latinos, the greatest threat is “intimidation” with measures such as demanding proof of citizenship for new voters and poll watchers who have permission to take cell phone video of voters who are receiving assistance at the polls. 

In the case of the African American population, measures such as voter ID restrictions, moving of precincts without adequate notice and limitations to mail-in voting, are serious threats to this right.

According to Hilary Shelton, Senior Vice President for Advocacy and Policy for the National Association for the Advancement of People of Color (NAACP), “seemingly innocuous issues like having to have an official state photo ID means in some places that people that don’t own cars (without a driver’s license), now having to pay an additional expense… if you have to pay extra money to go to the polls and cast your vote, that is a poll tax.”

Shelton also stressed that the United States is one of the few countries that does not automatically register its citizens in the electoral rolls when they turn 18, “but it does register them for the draft.”

Another right to vote that the initiatives in Congress want to restore is that of Americans with criminal records. “If you’ve made the mistake of committing a felony offense, even after you’ve served the time, even after you’ve come out of jail, in most states today you can’t vote.”

No polling places

The situation is more dire for Native American voters. According to Jacqueline De León, Staff Attorney for the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), over the past four years her organization has challenged in court North Dakota’s voter ID law, Montana’s ballot collection ban, Alaska’s witness signature requirement to vote during the pandemic, and the refusal to open an in-person polling location on the Blackfeet reservation, that would have forced tribal members to travel up to 120 miles in order to vote.

“We have filed nearly 100 lawsuits, with a success rate of over 90%. These cases have been litigated in front of judges appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents, and the facts are so bad that we nearly always win,” De León said. “But litigation is a blunt and expensive instrument that could have been avoided if the laws that go to Congress had been in effect today.”

Many Native American reservations do not have polling places, and DMVs and post offices can be hundreds of miles away. “Due to ongoing discrimination and government neglect, many Native Americans live in overcrowded homes that do not have an address, do not receive mail, and are located on dirt roads, that can be impassable in wintery November,” De León said.

Another provision that the bills in Congress want to include is assistance at the polls for people with disabilities and access to ballots in different languages.

“Language barriers are one of the biggest impediments to the Asian-American vote with one-third of Asian-Americans being what is called limited English proficient,” said John C. Yang, President and Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC).

“In every election poll, monitors have observed missing Asian language signage and interpreters, which limits our access to the ballot. Ensuring effective language assistance is paramount to closing that consistent barrier in national and local elections,” he said.

The John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act will be presented shortly in the House of Representatives and the For the People Act has already passed in the House and will have a Senate hearing in the next two weeks. Several polls have shown that both bills have bipartisan support.