California Forum

It wasn’t just Russia that interfered in the election

After the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in a 2013 ruling, several states passed laws restricting many Americans from going to the polls to vote.
After the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in a 2013 ruling, several states passed laws restricting many Americans from going to the polls to vote. San Jose Mercury News file

Denying votes. Limiting representation. Undermining America’s democratic processes. Interference in the 2016 presidential election occurred in many states, but in this case it wasn’t the Russians. Our electoral system was manipulated by our own leaders, and they used our legal system to do it.

The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in the 2013 ruling Shelby County v. Holder, making it easier for states and counties with a history of voter discrimination to create even more barriers to voting without prior federal approval.

The reaction to the court’s decision was swift and unmistakable. Two hours after the court ruling was announced, Texas implemented a strict voter ID law it had passed in anticipation. The law disallowed numerous types of identification, such as a University of Texas ID, a local government ID or a Medicare card, which would deny many students and voters of color access to the polls.

Sixteen states followed suit, including the presidential battleground states of North Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin. Photo ID requirements were imposed, voter registration and early voting were limited, and polling places were eliminated, which created longer waits for voters to cast their ballots.

This drive to limit the voting rights of historically unrepresented groups is nothing new. Throughout U.S. history, whenever voting rights were hard-won, elected representatives found new ways to restrict voting, such as Jim Crow-era literacy tests and poll taxes.

Today, proponents try to justify tighter voting restrictions to address the so-called problem of voter fraud – people voting multiple times, voting by noncitizens and voting by the deceased. But voter fraud at the polls is a phantom issue. Leading voting rights researchers, including Morgan Kousser at California Institute of Technology, Richard Hasen of UC Irvine School of Law and Lorraine Minnite at Rutgers University, have all found that only a handful of such cases have ever been documented in the U.S.

The true goal of these restrictions is to keep large numbers of eligible citizens from exercising their right to vote. And they are designed to disproportionally impact voters of color, low-income voters and young people. Studies show that these groups all hold state-issued IDs at lower rates than the general population.

Imposed in advance of the presidential election, these restrictions were intended to create unfair political advantages for some groups over others, at the expense of voters’ rights. Some of these state initiatives have been exposed for what they are: an assault on the democratic process.

Before the November election, federal courts ruled that North Carolina voting requirements “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” The courts were presented with evidence that members of the state Legislature had asked for data on whether African Americans were more likely than whites to vote early or use same-day registration, and when the legislators found they were, they limited those options.

In Texas, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in July that the state’s voter ID laws were discriminatory – targeting Latinos and African Americans. That same month, a federal judge struck down parts of Wisconsin’s strict voter ID laws as unconstitutional.

Nationally, support for recent voting restrictions follows clear partisan lines, with Republicans leading the push. In 2011, Republican state lawmakers began introducing dozens of initiatives designed to limit voting rights – only to intensify their efforts after the 2013 Shelby decision.

However, the fight against voting rights is not about one party. While Republican representatives are pushing to limit access to the ballot today, in 1965 Republican support for the Voting Rights Act actually exceeded that of Democrats. Southern “Dixiecrats” fought President Lyndon Johnson to deny passage of the Voting Rights Act due, in large part, to fears that increases in African American voters would mean a loss of Democratic political control. Today, Republicans who support these restrictions do so, in large part, because they fear political losses from the growing population of nonwhite voters.

In 32 states, Republicans control both legislative chambers and have signaled they are likely to step up efforts to pass new voting restrictions. Many other restrictions remain in Texas, and many more are suppressing the vote in states from Florida and Arizona to Ohio and Virginia.

Meanwhile, voting rights advocates are deeply concerned about how the new leadership in Washington will tackle this issue. With his nominee for attorney general, President-elect Donald Trump has signaled that his administration will work directly to limit voting rights and will not pursue violations of the historic Voting Rights Act. Nominee Jeff Sessions is on record as supporting the Shelby decision and labeled the law as a case of “intrusive legislation.”

California offers a beacon of hope. While other states have been busy curbing voting rights, California is making voting more accessible and effective for the state’s diverse population.

The 2001 California Voting Rights Act expands on the protections established in the federal law. State legislative leaders and voter advocacy groups have achieved a number of electoral reforms in recent years, including implementing online voter registration, same-day voter registration and a soon-to-be-implemented form of automatic voter registration.

While Latino and Asian American voter turnout in the state is much lower than that of whites, fake stories about voter fraud in California made national headlines. Donald Trump tweeted there is “serious voter fraud” in our state, a specious claim publicly invalidated by California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, as well as numerous fact-checkers.

Infused with racial, ethnic and class stereotypes, such accusations are intended to create a hostile climate of fear and suspicion, and threaten to tear apart our democratic fabric. California’s leadership must counter these false claims used by efforts to further justify voting rights restrictions nationally.

Ultimately, an assault on voting rights anywhere in our nation is an attack on our democracy. We cannot stand for the suppression of any American’s right to vote. Certainly, Russian interference in our election is a major concern, but it is our own elected representatives who have put the integrity of our voting process in jeopardy.

Mindy Romero is the director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change. She can be reached at msromero@ucdavis.edu.

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