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Voting Rights Act: The 2012 Election Proves Exactly Why We Need It

This month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments that could end key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Shelby County vs. Holder will challenge the provision requiring designated jurisdictions to receive "pre-clearance" before changing election laws. If there was any doubt that the Voting Rights Act needs to be retained, those doubts should have been erased by what happened in 2012.

The greatest justification was the concerted effort by right-wingers to suppress the vote. Republican state houses throughout the country constructed an elaborate and calculated effort to suppress voter turnout. The widespread effort targeted specific demographics and were designed to make it more difficult for voters to exercise their franchise. It was the type of activity expressly forbidden by the Voting Rights Act.

The 2012 elections were a case study in support of retaining the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The right to vote is not articulated in the Constitution; however, constitutional amendments state that you cannot prevent an eligible citizen from voting. The Voting Rights Act outlaws practices that prevent eligible citizens from reaching the polls, and yet, in 2012 elected officials were still trying to find ways to deny the vote.

The goal of the Voting Rights Act is to ensure that people who are eligible to vote are allowed to vote. Republican governors and state legislatures made repeated efforts to restrict voting rights throughout the country in 2012. The Department of Justice and the courts struck down multiple efforts to disenfranchise voters and suppress voter turnout in pre-clearance states like Florida, South Carolina, and Texas. As long as there are elected officials who would rather suppress voter turnout for political gain than encourage voter turnout, there will be a need to retain and enforce the provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

Republican officials tried to change early voting hours in critical swing states like Ohio and Florida. They attempted to restrict voter registration efforts in multiple states. Republican supporters tried using intimidating tactics in Ohio. They promoted misinformation in Arizona and Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania officials acknowledged that the information was misleading, but cited budgetary constraints for not correcting it. Arizona blatantly distributed erroneous voting information to Spanish-speaking citizens. The Voting Rights Act requires multilingual ballots for municipalities that request it, but that becomes moot when the municipality prints the wrong date on the voter information card. Ryan P. Haygood, director of the Political Participation Group of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, described the efforts as a "new wave of 'third generation' voting barriers." According to Haygood, the Voting Rights Act provides "indispensible tools designed to prevent these discriminatory voting laws from taking root and becoming entrenched."

Republicans attempted to disenfranchise the elderly, the poor, and students in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas. Harvard professor Alexander Keyssar, the author of The Right to Vote: the Contested History of Democracy in the United States, wrote that "No state has ever attempted to disenfranchise upper-middle-class or wealthy white male citizens." The goal was to target those groups who normally voted for Democrats and systematically suppress the vote among that group. For example, the courts found that Texas had used redistricting to disadvantage minority voters. In Florida the courts said "a dramatic reduction in the form of voting that is disproportionately used by African Americans would make it materially more difficult for some minority voters to cast a ballot." The U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a consent decree that prohibited the Republican National Committee from using voter intimidation tactics against minority voters.

If it wasn’t for the Voting Rights Act, Florida would have made additional changes to early voting hours that resulted in long waiting lines. The courts prevented Florida from changing early voting hours in pre-clearance jurisdictions. Texas and South Carolina would have been able to implement voter id laws that would have disproportionately impacted historically disenfranchised people. Mississippi would have moved forward with its attempt to implement voter I.D. laws. 2012 showed why this is an important law and why it needs to be retained for the foreseeable future.

Conservative political pundits like Ann Coulter, Tom Tancredo and Jane Chastain have advocated for "civics literacy tests" as a requirement to vote. Liberal columnist LZ Granderson openly wondered "should ignorant people be allowed to vote?"

Literacy tests, of course, are expressly forbidden by the law. Literacy tests are exactly the type of discriminatory practice that gave rise to the Voting Rights Act. Yet in 2012, there were people who wanted to arbitrarily define "a well-informed public" as a condition for voting.

The Voting Rights Act provides provisions for requesting federal voting monitors and observers. That need was reinforced when Democrats in Florida committed many irregularities in the congressional race between Allen West and Patrick Murphy.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a historical, critical, and landmark piece of legislation that is as important today as it was when enacted in 1965. 2012 proved that we still need federal oversight of elections administration for those states and jurisdictions that had a history of discriminatory voting practices. Poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and the "white primary" have been replaced by redistricting, restrictions on early voting, and voter registration.

2012 proved exactly why we still need this law. Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, it was Democrats that routinely tried to suppress voter turnout. In 2012, it was Republicans. As Doug Kendell, the founder and president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, wrote, the "heroic efforts that were necessary to win passage of iconic laws such as the Voting Rights Act" are the very reason why it should remain an "essential law."

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