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Jan Lee headshot

NAACP: The Black Vote Is Still Threatened

By Jan Lee

Listen carefully to this year's presidential candidates, and you'll hear a redundant thread: They want as many black votes as possible.

That's because, say analysts, the black voting bloc holds tremendous sway in who becomes president. And the previous elections prove it. Barack Obama captured 95 percent of the African American vote in his campaign. George W. Bush was reelected in 2004 in part because he was able to increase his percentage of black votes in key election states.

Plus, most African Americans usually identify with the Democratic Party's ideals: a strong government that isn't afraid to take chances and, at the same time, shows respect for community or cultural identification.

But while presidential candidates may be willing to battle it out for the percentage of black votes, unencumbered access to casting that vote is still in question, says the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). In fact, more than a dozen states have instituted laws or practices that disenfranchise communities of color when it comes to voting in elections.

The report, Democracy Diminished: State and Local Threats to Voting Post-Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, came out on June 9. It takes a deep look at what has taken place since the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. And what researchers found, says the NAACP, shows a worrisome trend when it comes to state and local ability -- and in some case willingness -- to protect the rights of people of color when it comes to state, local and federal elections.

A bit of background: The federal Voting Rights Act was created in 1965 at the height of the civil rights movement. Its heart and soul were Section 4 and Section 5, which imposed requirements on nine states and a handful of localities with a history of black voter discrimination. Most of the states were located in the south, where civil rights of minorities were still being forged into law. But by instituting those two sections and the understanding that a state or locality was responsible for protecting the rights of all voters (and could be subject to federal action if they didn't), Congress effectively provided a deterrent to discriminatory laws and redistricting practices in other states as well.

Democracy today: Voting rights diminished

And the proof that the law worked, says the NAACP, lies in what has happened in the last three years, since the Supreme Court ruled that Section 5's oversight was no longer necessary. Abridgment of voters' rights has grown in all of the nine states being monitored by the Act. Race or creed may not be a driving factor to many of those changes. But the NAACP's report illustrates that a state's intent shouldn't be the governing factor in deciding whether a law is fair if it can't protect the universal rights of its constituents. And interestingly, it didn't have to go far in its research to prove that point.

  • A day after Shelby Alabama won its challenge to the Voting Rights Act, the state of Alabama instituted a photo ID law. The intent of the law may have been to standardize procedures for identifying voters, but it ignored a list of studies which show that elderly voters who no longer drive or are homebound are shut out by such laws.

  • On the heels of implementing its new law, the state also proposed closing drivers license bureaus in key areas of the state's "Black Belt" communities. After local organizations challenged the proposal, saying it would restrict voters' access to drivers licenses and ID cards, the state backed off and instead reduced the DMV offices to one day a month. The federal Department of Transportation is now investigating whether Alabama violated the Civil Rights Act.

  • Voter purges are another issue of contention. At least four states have been accused of purging voter rolls. In many cases, those rosters affect the outcome of Democratic votes. In 2015, civil rights organizations sued two counties in Georgia that were purging eligible voters' addresses on the allegation that their addresses had changed. Seventeen percent of eligible voters (53 in total) in Spartan County, Georgia, were struck from the rolls. Almost all of them were African American.

  • In 2015, Arizona enacted a law that made it a felony to collect other people's ballots and transport them to a polling place. The NAACP points out that, in this case, it's Arizona's Native American residents who lose their ability to vote as a consequence. Many of Arizona's Native American communities are located in remote areas, and elderly voters and those without dependable transportation would be blocked from casting their ballots. An assortment of groups, including the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton campaigns, are suing the state -- alleging discrimination against minority voters.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who opposed the Supreme Court's ruling in 2013, published a dissenting opinion, saying that the majority's decision "errs egregiously."

"For a half century a concerted effort has been made to end racial discrimination in voting. Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, once the subject of dream has been made and continues to be achieved," Justice Ginsberg wrote in 2013.

With the NAACP's latest report, however, even that fact may be in question. The organization vowed to continue monitoring state voting laws and practices, laying ground for what may well turn out to be further proof that federal oversight is critical to protecting our basic democratic values. And as is always the case, those values have a way of deciding the outcome at this year's presidential elections.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Lauren Shiplett; 2) Flickr/Michael Fleshman

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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