A New Hope for Midwestern Voting Rights

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Last year’s Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v Holder thrust a “dagger to the heart” of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), according to Congressman, and veteran of the 1960s marches that led to the VRA, John Lewis. This week Congress responded to the Supreme Court, with Senator Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Congressman Conyers (D-MI), and Congressman Leahy (D-VT) introducing legislation that would scale back the VRA hemorrhage created by Shelby County and expand protections for voters across the country.

In Shelby County, the Supreme Court struck down the VRA’s requirement that certain “covered” states and counties (those with a history of discriminatory voting practices) receive federal pre-clearance before implementing any change to their election laws.  Over its lifetime, this requirement meant that the Department of Justice was able to proactively prevent thousands of discriminatory voting laws.  Since Shelby County struck down this requirement, almost all of the formerly covered states have introduced laws that civil rights groups believe will disenfranchise eligible citizens.

The covered states and counties were largely concentrated in the South and South-West of the country, and so Shelby County largely impacted voting rights in those areas.  But the VRA Amendment Act (the New VRA) would apply country-wide and provide useful tools to stem the tide of voting rights restrictions we have seen recently right here in the Midwest.

If enacted, the New VRA would mean three major changes for Midwestern voting rights. First, if states are found to violate federal voting rights laws five times in fifteen years, they will be “bailed in” to the group of states covered by the pre-clearance requirement. If found guilty of enough qualifying voting rights violations, any state could end up being required to submit their election laws for federal pre-clearance. Though no Midwestern states would be immediately bailed in, federal voting rights cases have been litigated in recent years in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan, so the possibility of coverage is real.

The second change introduced by the New VRA would be immediately applicable in the Midwest (and the whole country). The New VRA would require all jurisdictions to provide notice in the local media and online of changes to redistricting, the moving of polling places, and any election-related changes made within 120 days before a federal election.

A substantial part of the voting rights work of groups like the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights is to monitor election laws and practices across Illinois and the Midwest to identify where voters might be disenfranchised.  Increasing access to election law changes will enable civil rights and local community groups to be more efficient and effective in their work to prevent restrictive laws, and to educate the public on their rights.

The third change relevant to the Midwest is the expansion of the Attorney General’s authority to send staff to monitor federal elections in jurisdictions with sizeable language minorities. This provision would apply to Cook, DuPage, Kane, and Lake Counties in Illinois, and Milwaukee City, Wisconsin.

Though there are some deficiencies in the Act, overall the proposed changes would improve the ability of the government, and civil rights and community groups to ensure that every eligible citizen can register, vote, and have that vote count.

At this time of reflection on the life of Martin Luther King Jr., a man who gave his life for the cause of voting and civil rights, I applaud the Senator and Congressmen who have put aside partisan rancor to promote an act that preserves the very core of our democracy.