Black Legislators Want Your Voting Rights Back

African-American state legislators and voting-rights advocates are pushing back on nationwide voter-suppression laws.

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Voters line up to cast provisional ballots in Columbus, Ohio, November 2012.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

When Rep. Alicia Reece—a Democrat representing Cincinnati in the Ohio state legislature—hears people say the next big political event in the Buckeye State won’t materialize until the 2016 presidential election is underway, she wonders what political planet they inhabit.

In 2012, Reece saw conservative political operatives erect a billboard in her neighborhood that claimed to offer the area’s mostly black and Democratic-leaning voters legal advice—which happened to be completely wrong. In 2013, she watched her colleagues in the state’s Republican-controlled legislature introduce bills, at the rate of about one a week, that will effectively make it harder for Ohio residents to vote. One would eliminate some early-voting days, including a pivotal period during which voters can register and cast an early ballot at the same time. The other would reduce the number of voting machines each county must have on hand. Together, the measures would drive up the number of people who must wait until Election Day to vote, and then face long lines when they arrive at the polls.

And in 2014, most of those bills will either hit the governor’s desk for final approval or sail through the legislative process, passing easily along almost absolutely partisan lines.

“Folks around the country watch Ohio for the presidential races,” said Reece, who’s also president of the legislature’s black caucus and a board member of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s New York-based civil rights organization, the National Action Network. “But our struggle, the real fight to protect minority voting rights, is to make sure that our votes matter beginning in 2014.”

The struggle isn’t limited to Ohio. “There are at least 24 states where voter-I.D. laws have already been introduced, at least seven are trying to end same-day [voting and] registration and eight are trying to limit existing opportunities to vote early,” said Maryland State Sen. Catherine Pugh, a Democrat representing Baltimore and president elect of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.

“We just see all of that as voter suppression.”

And it comes down particularly hard on young, minority and elderly voters, possibly altering the outcome of elections. The potential changes follow a June U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning sections of the Voting Rights Act requiring states and counties that met certain criteria to receive federal approval for any adjustments in their voting procedures. These states and counties had both a history of voter suppression and could not prove that conditions had so sufficiently changed that they were eligible for a federal dispensation.

In the hours after the court struck down the law, Texas announced plans to implement a voter-I.D. law that a federal court had already rejected because it would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of black and Latino voters. And North Carolina has implemented a raft of Ohio-like measures restricting early voting, requiring specific forms of identification in order to register or cast a vote.

Now, voting-rights advocates and the Justice Department have a more limited toolkit to protect voting rights, explains Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Washington, D.C.-based Advancement Project, a voting-rights nonprofit that has suits pending against voter-suppression laws in those states, plus Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

“But those,” said Browne Dianis,“are the changes that we know about. The potential is really there for thousands of others. Small changes at the local level that really can shape election outcomes.”

One example: This year, an election administrator in North Carolina shuttered a long-standing polling site on a college campus. On paper, the change was the sort that sounded small and race-neutral, perhaps even insignificant. But to get to the new polling site, the college’s young and Democratic-leaning voters would have to walk a mile down a mountainous road that does not have a single sidewalk. The speed limit along the road is 45 miles per hour, and public transit doesn’t serve the route.

“What we are seeing are these insidious, seemingly simple changes that really don’t just make it harder to vote but aim to discourage voters,” said Reece. “And once you make that part of the experience for someone already working two jobs, trying to squeeze in the time to vote, you don’t just change the next election. It’s really an ugly and dangerous game to play in a democracy.”

So, black legislators and voting-rights advocates are fighting back.

On Jan. 16, Reece will kick off a campaign in Ohio to implement a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing voters’ rights, with the goal of making  changes to voting laws more resistant to changing political winds.

“We progressives would like to start our own movement, one that spreads to other states,” Reece said. For her, waiting until 2016 is too late.

Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.

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