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Voters navigate maze of new voting rules

Continue reading Voters navigate maze of new voting rules

High court to take fresh look at voting rights law

The U.S. Supreme Court will consider eliminating the government’s most potent weapon against racial discrimination at polling places since the 1960s. The court acted three days after a diverse coalition of voters propelled President Barack Obama to a second term in the White House.

With a look at affirmative action in higher education already on the agenda, the court is putting a spotlight on race by re-examining the ongoing necessity of laws and programs aimed at giving racial minorities access to major areas of American life from which they once were systematically excluded.

“This is a term in which many core pillars of civil rights and pathways to opportunity hang in the balance,” said Debo Adegbile, acting president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

In an order late last week, the justices agreed to hear a constitutional challenge to the part of the landmark Voting Rights Act that requires all or parts of 16 states with a history of discrimination in voting to get federal approval before making any changes in the way they hold elections.

The high court considered the same issue three years ago but sidestepped what Chief Justice John Roberts then called “a difficult constitutional question.”

The new appeal from Shelby County, Ala., near Birmingham, says state and local governments covered by the law have made significant progress and no longer should be forced to live under oversight from Washington.

“The America that elected and re-elected Barack Obama as its first African-American president is far different than when the Voting Rights Act was first enacted in 1965. Congress unwisely reauthorized a bill that is stuck in a Jim Crow-era time warp. It is unconstitutional,” said Edward Blum, director of the not-for-profit Project on Fair Representation, which is funding the challenges to the voting rights law and affirmative action.

But defenders of the law said there is a continuing need for it and pointed to the U.S. Justice Department’s efforts to block voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas, as well as a redistricting plan in Texas that a federal court found discriminated against the state’s large and growing Hispanic population. “What we know even more clearly now than we did when the court last considered this question is that a troubling strain of obstructing the path to the ballot box remains a part of our society,” Adegbile said.

Since the court’s decision in 2009, Congress has not addressed potential problems identified by the court. Meanwhile, the law’s opponents sensed its vulnerability and filed several new lawsuits.

Addressing those challenges, lower courts have concluded that a history of discrimination and more recent efforts to harm minority voters justify continuing federal oversight.

The justices said they will examine whether the formula under which states are covered is outdated because it relies on 40-year-old data. By some measures, states covered by the law are outperforming some that are not.

The Nov. 6 election results also provide an interesting backdrop for the court’s action. Americans re-elected the nation’s first African-American president. Exit polls across the country indicated Obama won the votes of more than 70 percent of Hispanics and more than 90 percent of blacks. In Alabama, however, the exit polls showed Obama won only about 15 percent of the state’s white voters. In neighboring Mississippi, the numbers were even smaller, at 10 percent, the surveys found.

The case probably will be argued in February or March, with a decision expected by late June 2013.

The advance approval, or preclearance requirement, was adopted in the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to give federal officials a potent tool to defeat persistent efforts to keep blacks from voting.

The provision was a huge success, and Congress periodically has renewed it over the years. The most recent occasion was in 2006, when a Republican-led Congress overwhelmingly approved and President George W. Bush signed a 25-year extension.

The requirement currently applies to the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. It also covers certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan and New Hampshire. Coverage has been triggered by past discrimination not only against blacks, but also against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaskan Natives and Hispanics.

Before these locations can change their voting rules, they must get approval either from the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division or from the federal district court in Washington that the new rules won’t discriminate.

Congress compiled a 15,000-page record and documented hundreds of instances of apparent voting discrimination in the states covered by the law dating to 1982, the last time it had been extended.

Six of the affected states, Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas, are backing Shelby County’s appeal.

In 2009, Roberts indicated the court was troubled about the ongoing need for a law in the face of dramatically improved conditions, including increased minority voter registration and turnout rates. Roberts attributed part of the change to the law itself. “Past success alone, however, is not adequate justification to retain the preclearance requirements,” he said.

Jurisdictions required to obtain preclearance were chosen based on whether they had a test restricting the opportunity to register or vote and whether they had a voter registration or turnout rate below 50 percent.

A divided panel of federal appeals court judges in Washington said that the age of the information being used is less important than whether it helps identify jurisdictions with the worst discrimination problems.

Shelby County, a well-to-do, mostly white bedroom community near Birmingham, adopted Roberts’ arguments in its effort to have the voting rights provision declared unconstitutional.

Yet just a few years earlier, a town of nearly 12,000 people in Shelby County defied the voting rights law and prompted the intervention of the Bush Justice Department.

Ernest Montgomery won election as the only black member of the five-person Calera City Council in 2004 in a district that was almost 71 percent black. The city redrew its district lines in 2006 after new subdivisions and retail developments sprang up in the area Montgomery represented, and the change left his district with a population that was only 23 percent black.

Running against a white opponent in the now mostly white district, Montgomery narrowly lost a re-election bid in 2008. The Justice Department invalidated the election result because the city had failed to obtain advance approval of the new districts.

The case is Shelby County v. Holder, 12-96.

PSAs advise on protecting transgender Americans’ voting rights on Election Day

The National Center for Transgender Equality and GLAAD have released a series of public service announcements advising on how transgender Americans can protect their right to vote on Election Day.

The urgency of the PSAs is linked to new and stricter voter identification laws in some states.

The announcements feature NCTE Executive Director Mara Keisling, writer and advocate Janet Mock, actress Laverne Cox, performance artist Ignacio Rivera, Charles Meins and poet Kit Yan. They are part of a nationwide “Voting While Trans” campaign to raise awareness about the impact the photo ID laws may have on thousands of transgender Americans this November. 

“New voter ID laws have created costly barriers to voting for many trans people,” said NCTE executive director Mara Keisling. “And much worse, the debate about voter ID laws have made even the idea of voting harder so many of us may feel discouraged from even trying to vote on election day. Our message is don’t let them scare you into giving up your vote.”

NCTE says that getting accurate identification is an old challenge for many transgender people. Some states have addressed the problem by modernizing laws on updating driver’s licenses.

But passage of dozens of new voter ID laws and strict photo ID requirements likely will create barriers for transgender voters at the polls. The Williams Institute at UCLA estimates that as many as than 25,000 transgender people could lose their right to vote as a result of revised photo ID laws.

“Every day, countless transgender Americans face challenges trying to secure IDs that reflect their true identity, and as a result, experience hardships in fundamental freedoms including the right to vote,” said GLAAD president Herndon Graddick. “We all deserve to make sure our voice is heard. These new strict-photo ID laws will adversely impact thousands of already disenfranchised Americans, many of whom are transgender people of color, who may also be low income, elderly or have a disability.”

GLAAD and NCTE urge transgender people to verify whether their voter registration information matches the name and address on their identification and to consult NCTE’s “Voting While Trans” resources to find out how to protect their rights at the polling place.

On the Web…

Watch the PSAs at www.votingwhiletrans.org.

New voter ID laws could delay presidential election outcome

The presidential election is Nov. 6, but it could take days to figure out the winner if the vote is close. That’s because new voting laws are likely to increase the number of people who have to cast provisional ballots in key states.

Tight races for Congress, governor and local offices also could be stuck in limbo while election officials scrutinize ballots, a scenario that would surely attract legions of campaign lawyers from both parties.

“It’s a possibility of a complete meltdown for the election,” said Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida.

Voters cast provisional ballots for a variety of reasons: They don’t bring proper ID to the polls; they fail to update their voter registration after moving; they try to vote at the wrong precinct; or their right to vote is challenged by someone.

These voters may have their votes counted, but only if election officials can verify that they were eligible to vote, a process that can take days or weeks. Adding to the potential for chaos: Many states won’t even know how many provisional ballots have been cast until sometime after Election Day.

Voters cast nearly 2.1 million provisional ballots in the 2008 presidential election. About 69 percent were eventually counted, according to election results compiled by The Associated Press.

New election laws in competitive states like Virginia, Florida, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania will probably increase the number of provisional ballots in those states this year, according to voting experts, although the laws in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are being challenged in court.

New voter ID laws in states like Kansas, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee could affect state or local elections, though some of those laws also are being challenged.

Provisional ballots don’t get much attention if an election is a landslide. But what if the vote is close, as the polls suggest in the race between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney?

Most of today’s voting nightmares go back to Florida in 2000, when the results of balloting and thus the winner of the presidential contest were not known for weeks after Election Day. Questions about recount irregularities and the validity of ballots with hanging chads – paper fragments still attached to punch-card ballots – preceded the eventual declaration that George W. Bush had won the state by 537 votes and was the next president.

“In a close election, all eyes are going to be on those provisional ballots, and those same canvassing boards that were looking at pregnant chads and hanging chads back in 2000,” Smith said. “It’s a potential mess.”

The federal election law passed in response to the 2000 presidential election gives voters the option to cast a provisional ballot, if poll workers deny them a regular one. New voter ID laws could slow the count even more.

In Virginia and Wisconsin, voters who don’t bring an ID to the polls can still have their votes counted if they produce an ID by the Friday following Election Day. Pennsylvania’s law gives voters six days to produce an ID.

In Ohio, which has competitive races for both president and the Senate, provisional voters have up to 10 days following the election to bring an ID to the county board of elections.

If voters in Florida don’t bring an ID to the polls, they must sign a provisional ballot envelope. Canvassing boards then will try to match the signatures with those in voter registration records, a process that conjures up images of the 2000 presidential election in Florida.

“Americans have gotten used to the expectation that you could turn on the TV and you would know that night who won the election, even after Florida in 2000,” said Edward B. Foley, a law professor at Ohio State University. “But this could be an election in which we don’t know the answer for several days.”

Florida could see a big increase in provisional ballots because the state has tightened its change-of-address requirements. This year, voters who move from one county to another in Florida without updating their voter registration will have to cast provisional ballots. In previous elections, they could change their address on Election Day and cast a regular ballot.

Four years ago, Florida voters cast about 36,000 provisional ballots. About half of them were eventually counted, though the percentages varied greatly from county to county.

This year, Florida could have 300,000 provisional ballots, said Michael McDonald, an election expert at George Mason University.

“You want to see chaos in Florida? There it is,” McDonald said.

In Ohio, address changes were the biggest reason voters cast provisional ballots in 2008, said Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted. Ohio voters cast about 207,000 provisional ballots in the 2008 presidential election – second only to California. About 130,000 of them were cast because voters moved and didn’t update their voter registration, Husted said.

In 2004, the number of provisional ballots cast in Ohio was larger than President George W. Bush’s margin of victory over Democrat John Kerry. Kerry didn’t concede until the following morning, when the provisional ballot picture became clear.

In 2008, the number of provisional ballots cast in North Carolina was larger than Obama’s margin of victory over Republican John McCain. The Associated Press didn’t declare the state for Obama until the day after Election Day, though Obama had already won enough states to claim the presidency.

Husted said his office is trying to reduce the number of provisional ballots in Ohio by using change-of-address information from the Postal Service to send out more than 300,000 postcards to Ohio voters, reminding them to update their registration.

“If we can potentially reduce the number of ballots cast provisionally, then you lessen the likelihood that there will have to be a prolonged process as it relates to those ballots,” Husted said. “Understand, a provisional ballot is a second chance because you didn’t do it right the first time, meaning that you didn’t update your address, you didn’t bring in the proper form of ID, there’s something that the voter didn’t do at the onset that prevented them from voting a regular ballot.”

Voter ID laws barriers to transgender citizens

Nine states’ voter ID laws may create substantial barriers to voting and possible disenfranchisement for more than 25,000 transgender voters this November, according to a new study.

The research comes from the California-based Williams Institute and was released at the organization’s 11th annual conference at the UCLA School of Law.

“As lawmakers consider enacting stricter voter ID laws and contemplate their potential impact in the upcoming November elections, the consequences of these laws for transgender voters should not be overlooked,” said researcher Jody L. Herman.

Strict photo ID states require citizens to present government-issued photo identification in order to vote. Without the required ID, eligible voters may vote on a provisional ballot and must provide an acceptable form of ID to election officials within a limited timeframe in order for their vote to count.

Transgender voters can face unique challenges to obtaining accurate government-issued identification. According to the Williams Institute report, 41 percent of transgender citizens who have transitioned reported not having an updated driver’s license and 74 percent did not have an updated U.S. passport.

Moreover, 27 percent of transgender citizens who have transitioned reported that they had no identity documents or records that list their current gender. People of color, youth, students, those with low incomes and respondents with disabilities are likely to be disproportionately impacted.

The 25,000 transgender voters who will face these barriers would have otherwise been eligible to vote in Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. All of these states have passed strict photo ID laws for 2012 – though all face legal challenges.

“As election officials in these states begin planning for their fall elections, this research highlights the importance of educating poll workers in order to ensure that transgender voters in their states have fair access to the ballot,” said Herman.

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