In November 2019, the Congressional Subcommittee on Elections issued a report on Voting Rights and Election Administration in the United States of America. The report detailed the history and current state of voting rights in our country, and presented some of the most important current battles to ensure all Americans can exercise their constitutional right to vote — many of which are core priorities of Campaign Legal Center (CLC) in our work to ensure that all citizens can vote without barriers. By commissioning this report, Congress reinforced the importance and timeliness of the work that organizations like CLC do daily to protect the fundamental right of democratic participation.
The committee’s findings span a wide range of mechanisms that impede the right to vote for many already disadvantaged communities. In many instances, CLC has been working closely with these constituents, advocating for them in court, pushing legislative solutions with state governments, or providing direct services to eligible voters.
Progress in Advancing Voting Rights
Among their findings, the Committee on Elections identified several areas in which progress has been made in expanding access to the ballot box.
Successes Blocking Laws or Policies That Punish Voters Based on Minor Clerical Errors
In the 2018 midterms, Georgia’s exact match law — which put voter registrations on hold when there were minor discrepancies between agency records and voter registration applications — led to the placement of over 50,000 voter registrations into an uncertain pending status. Seventy percent of affected voters were African American. Prior to the 2018 election, a coalition of Georgia civil rights groups — represented by CLC and partners — sued the state and won: naturalized citizens placed in the most precarious position by this policy were afforded important albeit limited relief before the 2018 election. Since, Georgia has enacted a permanent policy to abandon the failed exact match program.
Similar to exact match laws, flawed “signature match” policies can threaten to disenfranchise voters because of penmanship. CLC and partners fought this battle in Arizona in 2018, ultimately achieving an agreement in the Maricopa County Superior Court that the counties would permit voters to “cure” their signature mismatch issues. Because of this action, nearly 7,000 ballots were saved in one county alone. Similarly, legislation was passed to make this policy change permanent and provide advanced notice to voters of an alleged “mismatch.”
Enfranchising People with Past Felony Convictions
Prior to 2019, Nevada had one of the more complex rights restoration laws in the country. That is why CLC chose Nevada as a priority state for a public education campaign called Restore Your Vote — because the complicated laws fed a ubiquitous belief that citizens with past convictions were barred from voting. With targeted direct services, press outreach, and a letter to the Governor, CLC helped push Nevada to pass a groundbreaking bill in May 2019 that restored voting rights to 77,000 people. Now, citizens released from incarceration will immediately have their rights restored, eliminating one of the most restrictive regimes in the nation and replacing it with one of the most inclusive.
While there have been several victories, the report acknowledges that the fight to protect voting rights for all Americans has many challenges to confront. In communities across the country, activists and civil rights organizations are engaged in ongoing efforts to bring us closer to our democratic ideals.
Challenging Discriminatory ID Laws
Unfortunately, voter ID laws are still consistently used to disenfranchise minority groups. In 2013, CLC challenged a discriminatory Texas voter ID law that disparately affected Black and Latino voters. After years of litigation, CLC won, successfully proving that the state’s voter ID law violated the Voting Rights Act; and Texas was forced to reform their law so that voters statewide can never be turned away from the polls simply for lacking a certain type of photo ID.
Battles like this are still being played out across the country. In North Dakota, a voter ID law adversely affects Native American voters, because the residential address requirement disenfranchises Native Americans on reservations that often do not have and do not use traditional residential street addresses. CLC is engaged in a lawsuit asking the court to provide targeted relief for affected voters, arguing that inadequate and incoherent addressing on reservations — a problem of the state’s own making — should not prevent anyone from practicing their constitutional right to vote.
Protecting Voters From Being Registration Purges
Voter purges wrongly disenfranchise people by revoking voter registration status simply because of inactivity. The U.S. Supreme Court failed to uphold this principle when they permitted Ohio to purge its citizens from voter rolls after only two years of not voting. CLC’s Paul Smith argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ending this practice is an uphill battle. After the Supreme Court’s ruling, the practice has continued not only in Ohio but in other states as well. Georgia is one of those states. CLC and the League of Women Voters sent a letter urging Georgia to halt their expected purge of 300,000 names from the rolls. And in Texas, CLC and partners reached a final settlement that ended their flawed voter purge program that targeted naturalized citizens, including our client Julie Hilberg.
Stopping the “Modern Poll Tax”
Despite a historic victory in 2018 in which more than 60% of Florida voters supported the automatic restoration of voting rights to people with prior convictions, the state legislature turned around and passed a modern-day poll tax, requiring people with prior felony convictions to pay their fines and fees before their voting rights could be restored. In essence, this law conditions voting rights on one’s wealth. CLC on behalf of three Floridians and a proposed class of Floridians, alongside partners, took Florida to court. In October 2019, in a preliminary ruling, a federal court declared this practice as unconstitutional when it impedes the right to vote of those who cannot afford to pay their fines and fees. A trial is scheduled for spring 2020. CLC’s Molly Danahy gave oral arguments before the Florida Supreme Court on a related advisory opinion regarding the issue of fines and fees.
Furthering the Fight
The information highlighted in this report underscores the immense struggle to defend voting rights in a landscape in which the Voting Rights Act has been gutted of key voter protections. We’re committed to furthering this fight to increase voter participation and access in 2020 and beyond. In this spirit, CLC endorsed this vision for democracy, which communicates a positive vision for an electoral structure designed to include everyone. This includes removing barriers to the ballot box, ending felony disenfranchisement, strengthening election security, and more.
A prominent focus is on expanding voter registration, which can be done through adopting automatic voter registration (AVR). As we look toward 2020 and beyond, CLC plans to promote proactive policy reforms like AVR alongside our defense of the right to vote in court.
By commissioning this report, Congress has confirmed that there are many ways to improve our voting landscape to ensure that we have a healthy, functioning democracy in which all citizens are able to vote.