Supreme Court Allows Ohio to Slash Early Voting Hours as GOP Legislatures Seek to Suppress Minority Vote Nationwide

Posted Oct. 8, 2014

MP3 Interview with Jonathan Brater, counsel with the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice, conducted by Scott Harris

voting

In a 5 to 4 ruling on Sept. 29, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively blocked the start of early voting in the state of Ohio, reversing an earlier federal appeals court decision that had prevented the state from reducing days allotted for early voting from 35 to 28 days. The lower court had also mandated Ohio restore some evening and Sunday voting that the state legislature had removed. Although the Supreme Court’s ruling is temporary until a full decision can be rendered, the reduction in voting hours will be in force for this year’s mid-term election on Nov. 4.

The high court’s ruling could effect voting laws in Arkansas, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin, where GOP-controlled legislatures have passed laws reducing early voting, imposing new burdensome voter ID requirements and restricted registration drives. While Republican lawmakers assert new limits on voting rights have been introduced to prevent voter fraud, independent analysis has found no evidence to support that claim. Civil liberties and civil rights groups have long charged that the drive to make voting more difficult disproportionately affects minority voters and is part of a strategy to gain partisan political advantage.

Twenty-two states have passed restrictive voting laws since a wave of Republican party victories in 2010, and this year’s mid-term election will be the first time 15 states will enforce their new voting regulations. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Jonathan Brater, counsel with the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice. Here, he assesses the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on Ohio’s voting laws and the effect of GOP efforts nationwide to make it more difficult for citizens to vote in an election year where control of the U.S. Senate is at stake.

JONATHAN BRATER: The Ohio legislature moved to cut a week of early voting, including what was referred to in Ohio as "Golden Week," which was the time when you could register and vote at the same time. So this was obviously, very important for voter mobilization efforts. Early voting in Ohio was also something in recent years that a lot of minority voters had taken advantage of, especially the Sunday before Election Day. It was a very popular opportunity for things like "Souls for the Polls" drives, which are very popular, for example, in African-American churches. After the Ohio legislature moved to cut a week of early voting, a federal court had held that the cut to early voting would have to be blocked because of some of the harmful effects it might have, predictably on minority voters. And right before that restore of early voting was about to begin, the Supreme Court, without an opinion, just reversed it. So, as of now, that early voting week is not available.

In terms of the nationwide picture, I mean, this Ohio case is just one of a number of ongoing court battles that really could shape what the voting landscape looks like. There's also ongoing lawsuits in Texas, Wisconsin, North Carolina, a case involving Kansas and Arizona. So even though we're only a few weeks out from this mid-term election, there's a lot of moving parts and we're not sure what kind of landscape voters are going to face in a lot of these states.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Jonathan, since 2010, Republican-controlled state legislatures around the country have passed bills to limit early voting, imposed new obstacles to voter registration and restrictive voter ID laws. I wonder if you could review for our listeners the net effect that these laws may have on disenfranchising particularly minority voters in this coming election. I know there's been some studies about these laws will affect turnout in the next election and how that could actually change the outcome of some contests state by state.

JONATHAN BRATER: When these laws first passed, sort of in the lead-up to the 2012 election, we estimated at that time that up to five million Americans could have a harder time voting because of these restrictions. And, because of the ongoing litigation and because of some changes in state laws, we don't know exactly what the effect will be for this election. But some of the figures we've seen from some of these lawsuits suggest that it could be a pretty serious effect.

For example, in Texas, where we're currently challenging their voter ID law in court, the evidence showed that 1.2 million Texans don't have the ID that's needed by this law, and that includes 600,000 registered voters. And the impacts don't fall evenly. Hispanic voters are more than three times likely to not have that ID in Texas. Black voters are more than twice as likely not to have that ID when compared with whites.

And that's just one example. If you look at some of the other restrictions, like cutting back on early voting, sort of the backlash against early voting is something that's happened particularly in the South and Midwest after African Americans started using early voting at higher rates. And so, we've seen for example in states like Florida, after African Americans and Latinos used early voting at higher rates, the legislature is moving to cut down.

Another example is cutting back on voter registration drives. Voter registration drives by groups like the League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote! and other organizations are very important for closing the registration gap between racial groups. And so, we've also seen states moving to make those registration drives harder. So there's a whole variety of ways that some of these restrictions are not falling evenly in terms of their impacts across racial lines.

BETWEEN THE LINES: In your view, what is the antidote to all these states really setting up an uneven playing field for voters, where in one state it's going to be a lot more difficult to vote than a state next door. It just seems like we have a horrible mess in terms of voting rights in this country at the moment. Is federal legislation possible to create some basic standards or threshold to make sure the largest number of people can get to the polls without obstruction?

JONATHAN BRATER: I think that there a couple ways to fix it. One is, we definitely do need action at the federal level. First of all, Congress has to act to restore the Voting Rights Act. The way the Supreme Court has gutted the law, it's going to take congressional action to basically fix Section 5, to restore this key civil rights protection. There are also some just common sense reforms that can be put in place at the federal level. A bipartisan panel that had Obama and Romney's top election lawyers recommended a lot of common sense fixes, including things like modernizing voter registration and that Congress can act to put in place for federal elections. So that's definitely one way to address the problem.

Another thing we've seen that's actually very encouraging, is that a lot of states are passing positive laws including laws that modernize registration, some states expanding early voting and putting other pro-voter reforms in place. So one thing that people should definitely do is push for pro-voter reforms in the states. And then, we've also just seen voters really do push against these things. In 2011, for example, when legislators tried to cut Election Day registration in Maine, there was a ballot issue to overturn that. We've seen in North Carolina, where there was a harsh and sweeping registration restriction, there's been huge uprising, including the Moral Mondays movement that have been talking about these election issues extensively, and there been a big voter engagement push. So one thing to really keep in mind is that if politicians are passing these unfair voting laws and trying to manipulate the system, the answer is to understand the rules in your state, make sure you're registered, make sure you show up and vote and help other people do the same.

For more news and commentary on groups challenging discriminatory voter suppression laws, visit brennancenter.org.

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