At the height of the civil rights movement of the sixties, thousands of people risked their lives to change a system of widespread, blatant racism that kept millions of people from participating in the most basic civic engagement--the right to vote. Since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed to ensure that people of color had equal access to the polls it has been renewed and extended four times, most recently in August 2007. Originally focused on preventing racial discrimination, this important law has evolved in the past four decades to protect more communities who sometimes face difficulty in voting: people of color, people with disabilities, people with limited English proficiency, and others.
After a unanimous vote by the Senate, the Voting Rights Act was extended for 25 more years, yet despite the protections this law promises many states continue to impose restrictions on voting rights that limit people's ability to vote. We rely on the courts to defend and protect the right for everyone to vote. Discussed here are a few recent cases that illustrate the important role the courts play in helping enforce access to the polls and the ability to vote.
Fair Districts And Registration Processes
Up until the original Voting Rights Act was passed there were widespread and outrageous examples of the racist disenfranchisement of African Americans in particular: gerrymandering, or changing electoral districts so that whites would have a majority; literacy tests; and making people pay to vote through poll taxes. These days, voting discrimination is more subtle, but more often than not people still vote along racial lines and there are still cases where districts and voting systems are designed specifically to dilute the minority group's voting power. It is crucial that populations and people of color aren't disenfranchised and shut out of a democratic process through vote dilution. A 2006 Florida court found that a voting system was used to dilute the Latino vote and prevent the community from electing a representative.
In 1975, the Voting Rights Act was amended specifically to protect Native Americans, but the voting rights of Native Americans are still being violated. In 2002, for example, four voters challenged South Dakota's redistricting plan, which would have packed Indian voters into one particular voting district, diluting Indian voting strength in a neighboring district and leaving Indian voters there without a chance of electing a representative of their choice. The federal court was crucial in making sure that South Dakotan Native Americans weren't completely shut out of the voting process.
In an effort to discourage minority voter registration some states have passed legislation making it difficult for organizations to do voter registration drives, which generally target populations that may feel shut out of the political process -- low-income voters, people of color, older Americans, and people with disabilities, for example. A 2006 Ohio law created multiple hurdles -- pre-registration, online training, and affirmation -- before paid workers can do any voter registration drives. It also discourages registration workers from collecting registration forms to submit, since any worker who gathers forms and does not submit them to the State agency within ten days is subject to felony charges. Recognizing the burden these regulations placed on voter registration efforts, a district court judge stopped the enforcement of the new Ohio law until a trial is held. Project Vote v. Blackwell (N.D. OH 2006).
Burdensome Identification Requirements
Many people are barred from voting because of strict voter ID requirements, and the courts have an important role in shaping these requirements. Certain communities -- including people living in poverty, people with disabilities, single parents with small children, and the elderly -- have neither the resources for travel arrangements nor a morning to spend waiting in line at a local department of motor vehicles to get the required identification for voting.
If the courts enforce stiff ID requirements, people otherwise eligible to vote will be turned away at the polls and the number of people who can participate in the political process will shrink. Some courts are doing just that.
In Indiana, a district court held that the state's photo ID requirement is legitimate--even though it's estimated that almost one million Indiana voters do not have driver's licenses or other "acceptable" identification. Other courts have rejected the ID requirements imposed by the states. In Georgia last July a district court stopped the state from enforcing its photo ID requirement until there is a complete trial.
Equal Access To Polling Places
All people of voting age should have the right to vote, and people with disabilities shouldn't be denied this right based on misunderstandings and stereotypes about their abilities. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. If states don't allow a voter to bring a family member with her to help cast a ballot, or the polling site isn't accessible, her right to vote is meaningless. Many states have laws banning people with mental disabilities from voting, whether or not they are, in fact, competent to vote. The courts must be available to protect access to the polls.
For example, the California Attorney General recently brought a case challenging the accessibility of polling sites in Santa Cruz County because more than 100 sites violated the guidelines set out in a federal law (the Americans with Disabilities Act). People from across the country have also brought suits to enforce the Help American Vote Act, a law passed by Congress after the Bush v. Gore election to ensure that voting is made accessible to all people, among other things. Many of these cases, however, have been kicked out of court on the ground that the law was not intended to be a federal right that can be enforced in court.
Language access is another critical aspect of voting rights. In a Florida county, Spanish speaking voters were turned away at the polls because of language barriers. They were not allowed to bring family members with them to help interpret even though this was in direct violation of the Voting Rights Act. The United States government sued and a court ordered the county to improve its bilingual assistance. Again, this case shows how crucial court involvement is in efforts to protect voting rights.