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Vol. 80/No. 40      October 24, 2016

(front page)

Fight over voting rights goes down to wire in
2016 elections

With just weeks to go before the presidential election, voting rights for African-Americans — a conquest wrested by the Civil War and the massive Black rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s — remain under attack. Despite recent court rulings overturning use of voter ID cards in a number of states, local governments and county election boards have been maneuvering to keep voting restrictions in place.

The U.S. Supreme Court gutted key components of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013, holding that they were no longer necessary. State and local governments in a number of areas immediately began putting strict voter ID laws into effect, as well as restricting early voting, cutting back the number of polling sites, especially in Black communities, and eliminating same-day registration.

The Voting Rights Act had codified gains won by the mass Black-led movement that smashed Jim Crow segregation, including giving the federal government control over any proposed changes to voting laws in states with a history of suppressing the right to vote. These included states across the South, and in Arizona and sections of New York, Michigan and California. Since its enactment, the federal law had blocked over 3,000 such discriminatory voting rule changes.

Since the court ruling, many of these states have moved to pass new impediments in the name of stopping nonexistent “voting fraud.”

Over the past few months, federal courts have overturned some of these restrictive voting laws, including in Texas, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

In September a federal court ruled against Ohio’s purging of voter rolls by removing people who had not recently cast a ballot. This involved some 144,000 voters since the 2012 presidential election. In New York, state authorities opened an investigation into how the New York City Board of Elections struck 126,000 registered voters in Brooklyn off the rolls. The board claimed it was just “routine maintenance.”

The same month a U.S. Court of Appeals blocked efforts by officials in Alabama, Georgia and Kansas to require voters to furnish proof of citizenship to register. Seven percent of voters don’t have access to their birth certificate and can’t prove they’re U.S. citizens, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

What’s involved is a problem over “basic rights,” Rev. Kenneth Dukes, NAACP president in Shelby County, Alabama, told the Militant in an Oct. 7 phone interview. Places where you can register to vote “are only open certain days for so many hours,” he said. “In some areas the closest registrar is 45 minutes away, making it very difficult for those from impoverished areas to get there.”

“All citizens of this country have the right to vote,” Dukes said. “Everyone should be automatically registered to vote once in contact with any government program or services.”

States slash polling sites

Slashing the number of polling places forces voters to travel farther and stand in long lines. During the March primary in Arizona’s Maricopa County, for example, where more than 30 percent of residents are Hispanic, voters had to wait five hours to vote.

Many get discouraged, or simply aren’t physically capable of standing so long, and just go home.

Nine states — Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Hawaii, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah and Washington — have cut the number of days people can register to vote.

The Supreme Court’s decision to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act means the number of federal monitors placed inside polling places this November watching for civil rights violations will be slashed. In the 2012 presidential election observers were sent to 23 states. This year the Justice Department says they’ll be sent to fewer than five.

Some 6.1 million people are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, a new Sentencing Project report shows, a figure almost double that from 20 years ago. This reflects the workings of the U.S. criminal “justice” system in recent decades — a leap in arrests, virtually compulsory plea bargaining, and longer sentences. About 2.5 percent of those aged 18 and over — 1 of every 40 adults — is barred from voting.

For African-Americans the rate is much higher, with one out of 13 disenfranchised. In some states — Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia — more than 20 percent of African-Americans are excluded from voting.

Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow prisoners to vote. Over 75 percent of those disbarred nationwide for felony convictions are either on probation, parole or have completed their sentences.

In Alabama, a state law bars more than 250,000 adults from voting for any felony conviction deemed to show “moral turpitude.” But this phrase “is not formally defined in law,” reports the New York Times. “Instead, it leaves the decision of who gets to vote, essentially, up to the local registrar.”

A suit has been filed in federal court against this law. Among those affected, the Times notes, is Constance Todd, 70, who had been voting for years but was recently barred for the “moral turpitude” she displayed writing some bad checks 20 years ago.

Foot dragging by immigration officials also bars many seeking U.S. citizenship from being able to vote. Almost 940,000 immigrants applied to become citizens last year, but as of June 30 more than half a million of them have not even had their applications examined.  
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