On Nov. 4, 2014, in Eggleston, Va., a 93-year-old cancer patient named Virginia Whittaker arrived at her designated polling place after a doctor’s appointment. She produced her voter-registration card, some form of which she had been using in elections for the past 72 years. This time, however, she was turned away because she lacked valid photo identification, which all voters are now required to show under a Virginia law passed in 2013.
Whittaker was one of the millions of voters subject to restrictive new voting laws that took effect this year. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s devastating 2013 decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder—which invalidated core protections of the Voting Rights Act—15 states launched an assault on voting rights in advance of the 2014 midterm elections. This week we co-authored a report estimating the impact of these laws in 2014 in Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia.
In each of these states, citizens of color participated in the past two presidential elections in record numbers and made up a larger share of the eligible voting population than ever before. And in response to that growth, at least one new restrictive voting law or suppressive policy was in place in each of these states during the 2014 elections.
While the precise impact of strict voting laws on the results of the midterm elections is still being assessed, it’s clear that the number of people who studies predicted would face increased difficulties in voting often either approached or exceeded the margins of victory in important races. In Texas, a strict voter-identification law that was found to be intentionally racially discriminatory by a federal court but, incredibly, remained in place for November may have affected an estimated 1.2 million eligible Texans who lacked the required ID. A disproportionate number of those affected were people of color. Meanwhile, the Texas governor’s race was decided by 954,306 votes.
In North Carolina, the Legislature cut seven days of early voting, a window in which 200,000 people had voted in 2010. There, the 2014 U.S. Senate race was decided by just 48,511 votes.
Moreover, four of the five states studied here experienced a considerable decrease in turnout from the 2010 midterm elections—a trend that is at least partly attributable to these laws.
What can we do to combat this challenge of massive voter suppression? First, we must urge lawmakers to repeal the various laws that suppress the vote and urge Congress to pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act to restore the power of the Voting Rights Act to protect against racial discrimination in voting. We must urge grass-roots partners to fight against voter suppression. In our report, we encourage people to closely observe and report potential voter suppression to the appropriate authorities and groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which can be contacted at email@example.com.
Finally, we must remember that the best long-term antidote to massive voter suppression is massive voter registration. Each of the five states discussed in the report has a substantial number of eligible but unregistered voters of color. Getting those voters registered would put pressure on elected officials to stop attacking and start protecting the right to vote.
As the struggle to ensure that all Americans can participate equally in the political process continues, we must, together, each do our part to safeguard against efforts to constrict democracy in the 2016 elections and beyond.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Benjamin Todd Jealous is a partner at Kapor Capital, chairman of the Southern Elections Fund and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Ryan Haygood is a deputy director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.