Myrna Pérez is deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
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Voting Rights - and Wrongs
ELECTIONS BRING Americans together for a common cause—electing the leaders who are supposed to represent us, our families, and our communities. Just as we are all equal before God, voting is supposed to be an opportunity for us all to be equal: Young, old, rich, or poor, we each should have an equal voice in our democracy.
However, too many Americans may not have fair access to the polls in the upcoming election. Many citizens’ votes have become collateral damage in a battle waged by politicians who want to rig the system so that some people can participate in our democracy and some cannot.
Since the 2010 election, 21 states have instituted new voting restrictions—the biggest rollback of the right to vote since the Jim Crow era. This year will be the first presidential election with many of these new barriers in place, from requiring photo identification (which millions of Americans do not have) to curtailing early voting (which many citizens depend on to cast their ballots). On top of this, voters will go to the polls in November with the fewest federal protections against racial discrimination in half a century, due to a 2013 Supreme Court decision gutting a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.
One of the most frustrating examples comes from my home state of Texas. After numerous failed legislative attempts, and amid procedural irregularities and dramatic Latino population growth in the state, the Texas legislature in 2011 passed the country’s strictest photo ID law, requiring specific types of photo ID to vote. The law was crafted with surgical precision. For instance, voters can use a concealed gun license as proof of identification, but not a student ID card, even from a state university. All told, more than 600,000 registered Texas voters do not have the kind of ID now required to cast a ballot.
Voting Rights Act is an Important Moral Statement
Our country’s laws represent our values and our moral compass as Americans. They set norms, define transgressions, and mete out consequences for actions. And almost 50 years ago, our nation realized the harassment, intimidation, bureaucratic shenanigans, and violence so many African-Americans and other minority communities experienced when trying to exercise their rights to vote and participate in our great democracy. Our intolerance of such injustice led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — a great triumph in the defense of life, dignity, and equality.
Notwithstanding the near-universal praise the Voting Rights Act has received for ending some of the most overt discriminatory practices in our country’s voting history, there are some saying the Voting Rights Act’s time has passed. In fact, on Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments from Shelby County, Ala., that a key provision of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional and should be struck down. These arguments are misguided. The Voting Rights Act remains a vital piece of our national moral commitment never to permit racial discrimination in elections again.
Ash Wednesday: Restoring the Right to Vote
On Ash Wednesday, Catholics and many others will walk around with ashen crosses (or, by the end of the day, what look like indeterminate smudges) on our foreheads. Those ashes are strong symbols of core principles of the Catholic faith — symbols of repentance, identity, reconciliation, and renewal of baptism in the faith.
As a voting rights lawyer who is about as passionate about my work as I am about my faith, I can’t help but see parallels between the moral guidance I am given by my faith, and the policy choices that confront us in the secular world. These principles are reflected in the way we worship – and also in the actions we take in the secular world. This has led me and others to the conclusion that the 4 million Americans who lost their voting rights while incarcerated, and now live in our communities, deserve the chance to vote again upon release. It is both the just and the moral thing to do.
As we approach Ash Wednesday during this Holy Season, I encourage all Christians, guided by their core beliefs, to consider this idea.