Nearly a year after the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) dealt a major blow to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a group of public policy experts met at the University of Chicago Wednesday night to debate whether the right to vote is under threat.
“We’re talking about the right to vote, which is an undercarriage of democracy. We’re talking about a right that has been challenged, fought for, bled for throughout the years ... And it’s something that should not be encumbered,” said Tanya Clay House, public policy director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Clay House was one of four panel members at the 90-minute discussion that was moderated by Jeffrey Toobin, a staff writer at The New Yorker.
“We need to protect the right to vote,” she said.
A key provision of the Voting Rights Act required nine states, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, and certain counties to obtain advanced federal approval before making changes to election laws, such as potentially discriminatory annexations or redistricting.
But in June 2013, SCOTUS invalidated the equation used to decide which areas need federal oversight, or "preclearance.” Now, each of the states and counties that previously needed preclearance, and have known histories of racial discriminatory practices during elections, are permitted to freely change their voting systems without consent from the U.S. Justice Department.
Panelists Wednesday debated whether right to vote in America is under siege or if the coverage formula was indeed unconstitutional and no longer responsive to the country's voting conditions.
Panelist Myrna Perez, deputy director at the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy and law institute at New York University Law School, said the country still has a long way to go to ensure elections are free, fair and accessible.
“As Americans we need to be vigilant, we cannot rest on our laurels,” she said.
The conservative voice on Wednesday’s panel, Roger Clegg, president and general consul for the Center for Equal Opportunity, said he supports the SCOTUS decision because it ensures that Democrats don’t “steal elections.”
“I think that Republicans, conservatives want to make sure that elections are not stolen through people voting who are not authorized to vote, or are voting more than once. I don’t think that is something that’s imaginary, that’s happened in the past, it can happen again,” Clegg said. “To equate this dispute with what was at stake 50 years ago, when you could be killed, literally, for trying to get black people to vote is ridiculous, that’s not what’s at stake here.”
But Perez said just because voter discrimination is less blatant and nefarious today than it was in 1965, does not mean it no longer exists.
“I do not believe and I vigorously dispute the idea that Americans think it takes fire hoses and death threats to mean that there’s a problem. We need to acknowledge that racial discrimination can take a lot of forms,” she said.
“Right after the Shelby County decision, we saw states take action,” Perez said. “In some of those states there’s information in the public record, there were legislators willing to say ... that they were going to go more expansive in their attempts to enact voter restrictions.”
Here's more from Perez and Clegg at Wednesday's discussion:
Tensions peaked when Clegg said outright that he hopes Congress doesn’t draft a new equation to replace the coverage formula that SCOTUS struck down as unconstitutional.
“The question is, are there any jurisdictions now, in 2014, that are like 1965 Mississippi? The answer is ‘No.’ But if there were, you have the rest of the Voting Rights Act to go after them,” he said.
Members of the nearly 50-person audience responded negatively with statements like, “You’re wrong!”
Clegg responded by calling an audience member delusional.
“Even if we don’t have the same types of voter discrimination that we had back in 1965, we still have a host of other things,” said Clay House. “It may be different than what we had in 1965, but it has the similar effect of disenfranchising voters.”
As examples, Clay House told Progress Illinois that polling places could be moved without notice, district maps that dilute the minority vote could be implemented and strict voter ID laws can prevent certain people from voting because they require potential voters to present forms of identification that may be difficult for some low-income residents to obtain.
“Why is it that we are talking about people trying to stop [others] from voting? Why don’t you just get your message out about what it is you want them to vote for, and allow them to make their own decision,” she asked.
Wednesday’s panel discussion, which also featured comments from Richard Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California-Irvine, drew attendance from Cook County Clerk David Orr.
Illinois was not included in the most recent set of areas that needed preclearance and the SCOTUS decision does not impact the way the state changes its voting systems.
Orr said, unlike many of the states the panelists focused on, such as Texas, Illinois is expanding opportunities to vote by implementing early voting and voting by mail.
But, Orr noted, a major threat to America’s election process is declining voter turnout.
“Money is dominating our politics like never before,” he said. “A lot of people are turned off because they don’t believe our elected officials are really serving our interests. They believe they’re really serving those with the most money and power.
“I’m extremely concerned about the struggle for the future of our democracy.”