It's been one year since the Supreme Court ruled a key provision in the 1965 Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. In Shelby County, Alabama versus Holder the ruling says states with a history of chronic racial discrimination no longer needed to get Justice Department approval for changes to voting rules. Janai Nelson is the Associate Director-Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Alabama Public Radio’s Ryan Vasquez talked with Nelson about the act, and how violations outlawed by the measure are now re-appearing.
Janai Nelson: One of the most egregious laws that I’d like to point out came right out of Alabama, the very citeus of the Shelby County decision. There you have implemented a voucher test for voters who don’t have voter identification and who want to nonetheless vote in an election. Such a voter would have to have two separate poll workers vouch for their identity and that sort of discretionary election enforcement is the very sort of tactic that the Voting Rights Act has outlawed, and now we see places like Alabama re-instituting these Jim Crow-era tactics.
Ryan Vasquez: To maybe clarify a voucher test is on par with some of the other things you talked about Jim Crow-era tactics, like poll taxes and other things like that. Is that correct?
Nelson: That’s right, that’s right. Any time you interject a great deal of discretion into an electoral process and you leave it in the hands of local officials to decide who can vote you are opening the doors up for manipulation and for voting discrimination. And this is particularly so if you are in a jurisdiction that has a history of significant racial voting, racially polarized voting, a history of the very sorts of tactics you just mentioned poll taxes, at large elections, and even voter intimidation and voter suppression.
Vasquez: And we just had the first through of that law and of that voucher test being on the books here in our primary elections in Alabama and there didn’t seem to be too many problems. Now I know that some people have said that this is because there’s not going to be any problem, that’s the people in favor of it. And there are people who have said that there wasn’t enough of a turnout to show it and that we’ll see this have more of an effect in the November elections. Do you think that will be the case?
Nelson: Well certainly, there certainly were instances in which voters, African-American voters, were denied an opportunity to vote, but we do have to recognize that primary elections, while they are extremely important to the election process, are really a unique animal. The turnout in primary elections is typically much lower than what you would find in your average general election and that’s when we can expect and anticipate those sorts of problems. And, again the problem with this sort of discretionary tactic is that it is even harder to discern and harder to identify. If you have a polling place where individual election officials are making the determination that they simply don’t recognize or know these potential voters well enough to vouch for them that sort of instance is really difficult to track and identify. What we want to do is eliminate those opportunities from the electoral process all together so that we don’t have that potential for manipulation.
Vasquez: Well they at least talked about, and I think they are supposed to be taking up the issue again in Congress about taking a look at the Voting Rights Act and maybe making some changes or updating the practices in which they go about identifying problem areas. What is the likelihood of that happening in the current political climate?
Nelson: Well we hope that there is a strong likelihood that regardless of the fact that our Congress may be divided on a number of issues that this issue of voting rights is so integral to our democracy that with the will of the people, with the will of the constituents of Congress members, we can see some movement in this arena. This is something that we all have a stake in, the preservation of the integrity of our democracy, and so we hope that the bipartisan support that has led this effort will trickle down to again constituencies and out to other members of Congress to ensure that the Voting Rights Act, which has been supported and re-authorized four times in the past through bipartisan efforts that this will be a similar circumstance where we see the country pull together around the issue of voting rights which is something of value to all of us.