This past election day, a 50-year-old African-American voter in Mississippi, whose name has not been released, showed up to her local polling station to cast her vote in the general election. She had voted in the same county since she was 18 but was told her name was not on the rolls and that she would have to vote via a provisional ballot.
As the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington approaches, civil rights activists say one of the most powerful barometers of progress for African-Americans—easy access to the ballot box—is under attack.
The 2012 election cycle represented “the largest legislative effort to rollback voting rights since the post-reconstruction era,” says Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that released a report along with Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Thursday arguing that voting changes in 2012 disproportionately affected African-American voters.
The last two years have been a particularly tumultuous time for voting rights. According to the Advancement Project’s report, 180 bills they dubbed “restrictive” were introduced in 41 states between January 2011 and October 2012. Laws requiring voters to show ID at the polls—perhaps the most controversial piece of new voting legislation—were proposed in 38 states. On Thursday, the Justice Department announced that it plans to sue Texas on its new voter ID law.
Dianis said it was harder for African-Americans to “vote, cast a ballot, and have a vote counted” in 2012 than in any other recent election. According to the report, African-American voters waited in line for an average of 23 minutes to cast a ballot in the 2012 election, compared to 12 minutes for white voters and 19 minutes for Latino voters.
At Morehouse College in Atlanta, a historically black institution, 250 students said they were not able to cast regular ballots, according to the report. Some students waited in line for seven hours to get provisional ballots.
Early voting periods were cut in swing states like Florida, where huge numbers of African-American voters had cast their ballots in 2008 on the Sunday before Election Day with the help of church programs called “souls to the polls” that transported voters to polling stations.
In Ohio, ads on Clear Channel billboards were put up in predominantly African-American neighborhoods in the months before Election Day, reading “Voter fraud is a felony!” The steep fines for voter fraud—for which evidence is scant—were displayed on the billboards, which were eventually taken down.
In a landmark ruling this June, the Supreme Court invalidated a crucial part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring the federal government to approve local changes to voting laws in states with a documented history of racially discriminatory voting.
Officials in Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama proposed new voter ID laws in the first few hours after the Court handed down the decision. The Advancement Project says these laws could potentially disenfranchise tens of thousands of minority voters.
And these voter ID laws which remain at the heart of the debate over how new voting laws affect minorities don’t seem to be going anywhere. North Carolina passed a bill this year requiring that voters have a DMV-issued license or state ID at the ballot. About 30% of the voters without DMV-issued IDs are African-American, according to state data. Identification laws have also made it more difficult for many undocumented Latinos to vote.
But not everyone agrees that voting changes target minorities.
Logan Churchwell, a spokesman for True the Vote, an organization dedicated to stopping voter fraud, said there’s plenty of evidence that most people of all races voted without problems on election day.
“Shortly after the 2012 election, we canvassed counties in Ohio, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina and Maryland, seeking records of all complaints of voter suppression or hardship…we found none,” he says.
Rick Hasen, an election law expert and author of The Voting Wars, says the spate of recent voting changes affect poor Americans and Democrats more than any specific racial group, although African-Americans often overlap with those categories.
“The big question coming up in North Carolina and Texas [where voter ID laws are awaiting approval] is whether the motivation here is to target voters because of their race or because they are Democrats,” he says. “Whether it’s racism or partisan politics is at the center of this fight.”
“Democrats and African-American and Latino leaders have a reason to emphasize and exaggerate how much these laws make a difference because it helps mobilize the base, just as Republicans exaggerate the problem of voter fraud,” he says. “Some of this is real and some is political theater.”
But, according to the Advancement Project’s report, African-American voters did call in a flurry of complaints about their voting experiences on Election Day.
And now, 10 months later and in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, 24 states have proposed legislation to pass or strengthen voter ID laws in 2013. With the 2014 midterm elections only 15 months away, the battle over voting laws is just beginning.