Evolving electorate

In recent years, Illinois voters have confronted multiple logistical challenges, including voting locations that change at the last minute and the unavailability of online voter registration. Photo by Lucio VIlla.

In recent years, Illinois voters have confronted multiple logistical challenges, including voting locations that change at the last minute and the unavailability of online voter registration. Photo by Lucio VIlla.

It was one of the big stories out of the 2012 election campaign: the minority vote. For the first time ever, the turnout rate of black voters surpassed that of whites in the United States, by 2.1 percentage points. According to the 2012 Census report, 64.1 percent of white voters came out on Election Day, compared with 66.2 percent of eligible black voters. Even Fox News reported on the decisive role the significant Latino vote played in the re-election of President Barack Obama.

The U.S. Supreme Court had that demographic shift in mind when on June 25 it struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The decision allowed nine southern states to change their election laws without having to demonstrate that the laws have a discriminatory effect. The decision came in a 5-4 ruling. 

The Voting Rights Act was originally intended to protect the voting rights of African Americans in the South. But according to Chief Justice John Roberts, the conditions that led to the act’s passage are no longer in place. “There is no denying, however, that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions,” Roberts wrote.

But is it really that simple? Does a demographic shift mean that voting discrimination and the legislation that kept it in check are outmoded?

Marissa Liebling, a staff attorney at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, says the demographic shifts are “fantastic” and show that long-marginalized communities are finally finding their voices in the electoral process.

But a decision like the one made by the Supreme Court strikes at one of the key reasons that the black and Latino vote ever grew. There is voting “parity because those laws exist,” Liebling says, adding how important it is to have legislation like the Voting Rights Act on the books.

“They helped contribute to the political participation of minority groups that is now being cited against these protections,” she says.

The reality, Liebling argues, is that minority voters are discriminated against in ways that are much more subtle, and that have been persistent since the Voting Rights Act was enacted.

Most recently, during the 2011 Illinois legislative session, the issue of photo identification laws arose.

More than 30 states across the country, including Illinois, introduced laws mandating that voters would have to present government-issued photo IDs to vote. While having that ID was put forward as “common sense” by supporters of the restrictive voting legislation, as many as 11 percent of voters nationwide don’t have them, according to a 2006 study by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

While many of the state-level laws were knocked down before they could take effect, advocates see them as a troubling trend.

Without a federal law guaranteeing the freedom to vote, the political system would become “separate and unequal,” argues ColorofChange.org, a Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit that advocates for racial equality in the political system,

“Each state sets its own electoral rules, leading to confusing and sometimes contradictory policies with regard to polling hours, registration requirements, voting equipment, ex-felon rights and even ballot design. The result is an electoral system divided,” ColorofChange.org wrote in a statement decrying the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act decision. 

In Illinois, voters have confronted multiple challenges at the polls in recent years, says Rebecca Reynolds, executive director of Chicago Votes, a volunteer-run voter registration and advocacy group focused on the youth vote. These include voting locations that change at the last minute and, until recently, the unavailability of online voter registration, Reynolds says.

Such logistical challenges can keep the most vulnerable populations from coming to the polls, Reynolds explains.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, in light of anti-discrimination laws that did not ensure the voting rights of African Americans in the then-recently desegregated South.

Now, as many forms of segregation and discrimination still persist, some are calling for a renewed movement to protect the rights of minorities, including voting.

“We still need to build a voting rights movement,” Reynolds says. “We need to build a path to a new Voter Registration Act so it can ensure the voting rights of all eligible Americans.”

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