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Voting rights are in peril, and democracy hangs in the balance

Jotaka Eaddy

The 2014 fall midterm elections are gearing up to be among the most significant in decades, since they have the power to determine the balance of U.S. political power. Yet new laws and election changes across the country — from photo-ID requirements and early-voting cutbacks to the removal of polling places and changes in election procedures — may block many from accessing the ballot box this November.

From coast to coast, millions of Americans’ right to vote is at risk.

Protections that were once instituted to guarantee the franchise now hang in the balance following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder that dismantled key provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

For the first time this year, voters in 15 states are facing an array of strict voting rules in major elections, according to a report released by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. And unless these laws are blocked by the courts — and there are court challenges to measures in six of those states — the votes of nearly half the country could go uncast in the 2014 midterm elections.

Shortly after the Shelby decision, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that the state’s voter-identification law, previously rejected by a federal court as the most discriminatory measure of its kind in the country, would “immediately” go into effect. And immediately, people encountered new barriers. One such person was Judge Sandra Watts, who was stopped while trying to vote because the name on her photo ID — the same one she had used for voter registration and identification for 52 years — did not exactly match her name on the official voter rolls. Watts was eventually allowed to vote after she signed an affidavit attesting that she was who she said she was.

There is no guarantee, however, that the next voter without the “proper ID” will be as fortunate.

In addition to statewide election changes like those in Texas, local election boards in jurisdictions previously covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act now have the ability to make election changes with little to no oversight. This means that communities with a history of voting discrimination face even greater threats, such as the removal of polling places, changes in district lines and even changes to the dates of local elections. We are already witnessing numerous election changes in communities across the nation, and we expect this dangerous trend to increase.

In Athens, Ga., shortly after the Shelby decision, local government officials considered eliminating nearly half of its 24 polling places and replacing them with only two early-voting centers — both of which would be located inside police stations, according to a recent report by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Community members raised concerns that the location of the new centers would intimidate some voters of color and that the proposed closures would be harmful to voters of color and/or students, many of whom would need to travel on three-hour bus rides just to reach the new polling places.

Now is the time to act. On June 25 the NAACP will recognize the one-year mark of the Shelby v. Holder decision by urging Congress to pass a Voting Rights Amendment Act that protects voters and fixes the Voting Rights Act.

We applaud the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary for scheduling a hearing on the VRAA. But we implore the U.S. House of Representatives, particularly the House Judiciary Committee, to follow suit and quickly schedule a hearing on this necessary legislation.

Already garnering bipartisan support, the legislation provides common-sense solutions to prevent discrimination against all voters regardless of race, including remedies to address current discrimination as it occurs, the ability to review voting changes in places that have engaged in discrimination in the present and recent past, and better public notification of potential voting changes to enhance accountability.

Inaction cannot be an option. Every day that Congress fails to act, local municipalities and state legislatures across the United States have the ability to pass election changes that could discourage, diminish or eliminate the voting power of whole communities — all with no checks and balances.

Our democracy is in jeopardy. And it is up to us — all of us — to fight to preserve it. The future of our democracy depends on it.

Jotaka Eaddy is the senior adviser to the president and CEO, and senior director of voting rights, at the NAACP.