VEASEY: The Voters Who Never Got to Cast Their Ballots

Dec 22, 2016

A 2013 Supreme Court decision hung ominously over the 2016 presidential election as Congress left for the campaign trail in October. While voters were being inundated with campaign ads and constant coverage of the 2016 election cycle, there was little media coverage regarding a sizable segment of the U.S. population that would be excluded from participating in our country’s greatest democratic tradition.

For over three years since the Shelby County v. Holder decision, House Republicans have ignored their duty to pass an updated Voting Rights Act, and their failure to act has left voters vulnerable to suppressive tactics.

I am disappointed not only with the results of the 2016 election—I am upset with the fact that millions of Americans were denied their constitutional right to vote and robbed of their opportunity to participate in our democracy.

As we move forward and decide the future of our nation, we must face the reality that we have left millions of voters vulnerable to voter suppression and work to ensure that they are protected before the next set of elections.

The effects of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act struck North Carolina residents particularly hard this election cycle. The elimination of early voting, the termination of same-day voter registration, and prohibitive voter-ID requirements set into place by the state’s H.B. 589 law were designed to most affect North Carolina’s minority voters.

After a long legal battle, H.B. 589 was struck down in time for the general election, but the damage of the underlying intent of the legislation was still felt statewide. Following the 4th District Court’s affirmation that H.B. 589 discriminated against African-American and minority voters, 17 Republican-controlled boards of elections left the legal minimum of one early-voting location open for the public and cut down early-voting locations from 22 in 2012 to just four this year.

The lack of polling locations both created long lines and discouraged voters from participating by forcing some residents without the time or resources to travel long distances to sacrifice their constitutional right.

In addition to the effects of significant poll closures nationwide, voter turnout appeared lower in states that implemented strict voter-ID laws following the 2013 Shelby decision. Wisconsin implemented a voter-ID law after Shelby, and Milwaukee’s elections chief reported that the new voter-ID requirements depressed turnout in high-poverty areas. The city of Milwaukee saw 41,000 fewer votes, and state turnout was at a 20-year low for the 2016 presidential election.

Even in states that didn’t fully implement restrictive voter-ID laws, the resulting confusion of sudden changes in voting requirements right before the elections left voters dissuaded and poll workers confused. In Pennsylvania, poll workers wrongfully asked for identification in a state that did not even implement a photo voter-ID law.

The resulting combination of new voter-ID laws and the lack of public education about changes in voting requirements discouraged African-American, elderly, disabled and other minority voters from making their voices heard at the polls.

We will always disagree and pick our favorites to win in both local and national elections. But we should be able to agree that in order to keep the integrity of our fair elections alive, all eligible Americans should be able to cast their ballots freely. As one of the co-chairs and founders of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus, I will continue to fight alongside my House colleagues for the passage of an updated Voting Rights Act to ensure that the sacred right to vote is not compromised in future elections. Voter suppression cannot become the new normal as it has been in the past three years.

The Supreme Court left it to Congress to update the historic Voting Rights Act that previously protected disenfranchised and minority voters from intimidation at the polls, and House Republicans cannot continue to shirk that responsibility. While no one can predict who will win the presidential election in 2020, Americans should be able to trust that if they are over 18 and a U.S. citizen, their votes will not be blocked.