First GOP Debate To Take Place In A State Where Access To Voting Rights Is Getting Worse

Alice Ollstein Political Reporter, Think Progress

When ten Republican presidential candidates gather on stage in Cleveland this Thursday, they’re unlikely to touch on access to the polls, despite the fact that the debate marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and the debate’s host state Ohio has been rolling back voting rights protections.

Progressive groups and the White House are urging the Fox News debate moderators to press the candidates on whether they would restore key voter protections the Supreme Court gutted in 2013. But the candidates’ records in their home states and in Congress show a higher interest in limiting access to the ballot.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who barely made the cut for the debate, has worked to restrict where and when state residents can register to vote, vote early, and vote absentee — policies that have brought lawsuits from students and people of color who say they’ve been disenfranchised. Kasich has also approved several bills to change election dates, while his secretary of state has been accused of intimidating voters and throwing out eligible provisional ballots.

“To me, it seems like a concerted effort to confuse the electorate by changing the rules,” said state Rep. Dan Ramos, who represents Cleveland in the Ohio legislature, in an interview with ThinkProgress. “We also have a real problem with access. There are counties in Ohio with a bigger population than some states, and others smaller than some neighborhoods, but they each only have one early voting location. This can cause long lines, and if the location may not be on a bus line, it isn’t really providing access.”

A voter ID law now sitting in the state legislature could present an additional barrier. Stricter than those in other states, the legislation says voters can only use a drivers’ license, state ID, military ID or passport as valid identification. Student IDs will not be accepted.

“The most impacted will be the poor, young people, and transient folks,” Ramos said. “The Republicans in charge say everyone has this, but it’s not true. Between the IDs and the registration restrictions, it’s promoting the view it’s not enough just to be a citizen in order to vote — you have to be a citizen who owns a car and a house. It’s almost like we’re going back to the requirement that you have to be a property owner. And since our IDs are not free, it’s a blatant poll tax.”

But as bad as things are in Ohio, many of Kasich’s rivals have just as much to answer for.

On the campaign trail this summer, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has repeatedly boasted about the strict voter ID policy he signed into law, which is expected to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of eligible residents.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush carried out a controversial voter purge just before the contested election that put his brother in office. African Americans made up only 11 percent of registered voters in the state, but were 44 percent of those on the purge list.

And over in New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie has signaled he may veto a bill to expand early voting and make voter registration easier.

Even Republican candidates who won’t make it into the main debate, like Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, have restricted voting access in theirs states. Perry signed off on a strict voter ID law and a redistricting scheme that have both been ruled discriminatory and unconstitutional by some federal courts. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has slashed the budget of his state’s elections agency.

Meanwhile, in Congress, Republicans have avoided action on restoring the parts of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court. Even those candidates who have professed concern for civil rights, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), have refused to back a bill restore the VRA, while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has actively worked against it.

Those in Congress who are pushing for restoring the voter protections, including Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), have slammed their Republican colleagues for making a show of honoring the 50th anniversary of a bill they now won’t support.

“The hypocrisy of this Congress really baffles to me,” she said in a recent speech. “On March 7, Congressman Lewis and I welcomed over 100 members of Congress to Selma to commemorate Bloody Sunday. The fact that the brave men and women – ordinary Americans – could collectively achieve extraordinary social change is something that both the Republicans and Democrats who showed up in Selma could do. It was Kumbaya moment, but what did we do when we came back to Congress? Nothing.”

This congressional inaction is having a major impact across the country, as states previously restricted by the Voting Rights Act have been freed to pass a wave of laws making it more difficult to register and cast a ballot.

“It’s sad that 50 years after the Voting Rights Act you still have laws being passed like the one in North Carolina, with the discriminatory effects it will have,” Julie Ebenstein with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project told ThinkProgress. ” The voting opportunities that came after the VRA, like same-day registration, out of precinct voting, early voting, they worked. They increased turnout, and made voting more accessible to more people. Now, legislatures are doing away with them without adequate justification, and African Americans that disproportionately used these opportunities are most impacted by taking them away.”

Ebenstein is one of the attorneys suing North Carolina for intentionally suppressing the votes of residents of color. She says that if the Republican-controlled Congress had voted to restore Section 4 of the VRA, the North Carolina law could have been blocked before it took effect.

“North Carolina is a good example of why it was so important for states to have to seek pre-clearance [from the Justice Department] before implementing a new voting law. Now, we’re relying on litigation, which can take years, and often isn’t resolved until after an election where people’s rights are violated. If a court later finds violations, there no way to turn back the clock on that election. Plus, plaintiffs now have the burden of showing that a law is discriminatory, where before the state had the burden of showing there is no discrimination. Pre-clearance under Section 4 was far more protective.”

Though the political landscape is radically different today than it was 50 years ago, with more people of color casting ballots than ever before, voting rights advocates say serious challenges remain.

“We’re seeing more subtle, second generation barriers to voting,” said Ebenstein. “There is no longer a literacy test or a poll tax, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the laws states are passing will have a disproportionate effect on people of color. It’s pretty clear that early voting periods were disproportionately used by African Americans, and they’ve been targeted and eliminated. These are very focused changes even if they’re not as explicitly racial on their face.”


This has been reposted from Think Progress.

Alice Ollstein is a Political Reporter at ThinkProgress. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered and Telesur. Alice is originally from Santa Monica, California.