The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was meant to break down obstacles to voter registration that had kept minority groups out of the polls for most of American history. Besides outlawing literacy tests, the act allowed the U.S. attorney general to investigate poll taxes, which had been banned for federal elections in 1964, and state elections in 1966. Section 5 of the act required federal oversight of 11 states where at least 50 percent of the non-white population was not registered to vote.
The Voting Rights Act was seen as a major victory of the civil rights movement and was considered a breakthrough in making sure every citizen had access to one of their most basic rights.
Half a century later, having a voice in American government is not as simple as showing up to the polls on election day. Here are five reasons your political voice may go unheard.
1. Use-it-or-lose-it Registration Laws
It’s impossible for your vote to count if you never get to cast it. Some states have instituted strict registration laws that make it harder for potential voters to stay registered. One example is Ohio’s “use-it-or-lose-it” law that allows the state to unregister voters who have not cast a ballot in a set amount of time. If you go two years without voting the state sends you a warning in the form of a post card. If you go a further four years (missing one presidential election) without responding or voting, the state removes you from voter rolls.
This law was upheld by the Supreme Court case Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute in 2017. It has contributed to the removal of two million voters between 2011 and 2016. And, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted in her dissenting opinion, “has disproportionately affected minority, low-income, disabled, and veteran voters.”
2. Exact Match System
The exact match system also presents an obstacle in voter registration. This Georgia law requires the name on your ID to exactly match the name on your registration form. Using “Jim” on the form and having “James” on your ID, for example, would result in disqualification. Even one hyphen or letter out of place will prevent you from voting.
Critics of this system also argue that the exact match system unfairly affects communities of color, as their names would be less familiar to workers entering names into voter registration systems. As such the exact match system has come to be known as “disenfranchisement by typo.”
3. Mailing Address Required
North Dakota requires a current street address as voter identification. This policy prevents voters without a residential street address from registering to vote.
More specifically, most Native Americans living on reservations, (more than 18,000 in North Dakota), use P.O. boxes instead of residential addresses. The policy dictates that the address must be a street address and does not accept P.O. boxes, keeping those living on reservations from the polls. The Supreme Court upheld this law in 2018.
4. Felons Can’t Vote
All but two states (Maine and Vermont) revoke your right to vote upon conviction of a felony. In 14 states and Washington, D.C., this right is automatically restored upon release. In 22 states the right to vote is restored after a waiting period, completion of parole, or independent action of voters. The remaining 12 states require further action to restore the right (such as longer waiting periods or a governor’s pardon) and for some crimes the right to vote is never restored.
In 2018 Florida passed a law that would restore the right to vote to former felons who have already paid their debt the society. This law gave voting rights to 1.4 million people, the largest mass enfranchisement since the Voting Rights Act. This brief moment of victory was quickly followed with a law passed in May of 2019 that required all former felons to pay off back fines and fees to the court before they can vote again. Similar laws exist in four other states, and three states require former felons to personally apply to state legislatures for their voting right to be restored (Arizona requires this only for second-time offenders).
5. Finding a Polling Place
The Voting Right Act’s Section 4 was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2013. The Shelby County v. Holder decision stated that times have changed and states with a long history of voter suppression no longer needed voting policies monitored by the Attorney General or a Washington, D.C. district court. A 2016 study by the Leadership Conference Education Fund found that “Out of the 381 counties [formerly under federal supervision], 165 of them — 43 percent — have reduced voting locations.” At the time of the study, 868 polling locations had closed across the previously monitored states. The closures have continued since 2016.
In Georgia, specifically, over 200 polling places have closed in recent years. The Leadership Conference study claims that the lack of polling places and early voting locations “place[s] an undue burden on minority voters, who may be less likely to have access to public transportation or vehicles, given continuing disparities in socioeconomic resources.”
Voting is much more complicated than simply showing up. The Voting Rights Act aimed to include more Americans in the political discussion. but there is still more that needs to be done. As Lyndon B. Johnson said when introducing the Voting Rights Act “There is no moral issue. It is wrong–deadly wrong–to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.”
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