DOJ Pushes Back Against Restrictive State Voting Laws
The right to vote is fundamental to our constitutional democracy. While the right to vote was initially restricted to white, property-owning males, the hard work of brave civil rights activists has allowed this inalienable right to extend to (almost) all Americans. These rights have been achieved, in part, through legislative means, particularly through the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, which has been renewed four times (most recently in 2006).
On June 25, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby v. Holder to invalidate parts of the Voting Rights Act. Parts of the Act were drafted in our conference room here at the RAC, and we strongly opposed the Court’s decision in Shelby. The Court struck down Section 4(b), which contained a “formula” requiring certain jurisdictions with a history of disenfranchisement problems to seek approval, or “preclearance,” from the Department of Justice when making any changes to election procedures.
Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the decision, many states previously covered by Section 4(b) are testing the extent to which they can legally limit citizens’ access to the ballot box. The Department of Justice, however, is beginning to fight back.
In August, the DOJ announced that it would sue the state of Texas in an attempt to overturn an overly restrictive Voter ID law. And last week, the agency announced a suit against North Carolina, seeking to overturn a broadly restrictive new voting law there. The DOJ will challenge four provisions of the North Carolina law, including a strict voter ID requirement, shortening of the early voting period, elimination of same-day voter registration during that period, and a change in the way provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct are counted. Civil rights advocates contend that such changes will make voting more difficult and disproportionately impact racial minorities.
While parts of North Carolina were, until Shelby, covered by the “preclearance” provision, the lawsuit relies on Section 2 of the VRA, which prohibits discriminatory voting laws. It goes farther by also seeking to utilize the “bail-in” provision of Section 3, which enables courts to require federal preclearance for certain jurisdictions. At the same time, many civil rights groups hope for a more universal, legislative solution to repair the damage done by Shelby. Since the Court left the door open to a new preclearance coverage formula, advocates are seeking a formula that would capture jurisdictions based on more recent actions.
Jewish tradition teaches us that the process of choosing leaders is not a privilege but a collective responsibility. The Sage Hillel taught: Al tifros min hatzibur, “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:4). Rabbi Yitzchak taught that “a ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 55a). It is our duty to ensure that all eligible citizens are afforded the opportunity to vote and have their votes counted. We believe in the dignity of every voter and allegations of voter disenfranchisement compel us to speak out.
Our 2001 Resolution on Election Reform encourages “federal, state, and local government agencies to undertake measures aimed at expanding voter registration, increasing voter participation, and ensuring equal access to the polls for all Americans.” We therefore oppose the restrictive new North Carolina law and support legislative and judicial solutions that would expand the franchise and ensure adequate oversight to promote fair elections and equal access to the ballot. The Department of Justice’s lawsuits might represent small steps in perpetuating the American tradition of fair and free elections.