“Not Left, Not Right, But Forward”

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Voters line up for their chance to cast a vote in 2004 in Miami, Florida (Photonica World/Getty Images)

50 Years On, Advancing U.S. Voting Rights for All


Daniel Menchaca, who lives in El Paso, Texas, has voted in nearly every election for the last 30 years. But in November 2014, he confronted a problem at the polls: due to a new law, he needed to show his driver’s license to cast a ballot, and he had left his license at home. Poll workers refused to accept his voter ID card or a federally issued ID for his job at a military base; instead, they told him to fill out a provisional ballot. Three weeks later, he learned that—due to missing documentation he hadn’t known was necessary—his provisional ballot wouldn’t count.

Menchaca says the experience made him feel “upset” and “unworthy”—and it didn’t seem to make much sense. The poll workers, who live in his neighborhood, knew who he was. It was harder to get his federal ID (which includes his address, a photo, and a computer chip) than his driver’s license. Situations like this explain why he finds voting so crucial in the first place: “They try to take your rights away.”

In recent years, the United States has seen a rush of restrictive voting policies. The number of new difficulties citizens face—including voter ID laws, cutbacks in early voting, closures of polling places, limitations to same-day registration, and other discouraging measures—is “unprecedented in the last several decades,” according to a report from New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute. Until 2013, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) required areas with histories of discrimination to clear proposed voting law changes with the federal government, a hurdle that prevented the passage of countless restrictive laws. In 2012, for instance, the VRA stopped Texas from enacting the very policy that would preclude Menchaca from voting two years later. But the Supreme Court dismantled the Act in 2013 with their Shelby County v. Holder decision, which lifted protections from the regions that need them most.

Harsh voting laws disproportionately affect people of color, youth, and the poor, as well as other disadvantaged groups, and the protests that recently rocked cities such as Ferguson and Baltimore have given the matter new urgency. Matt Singer, Executive Director of the Bus Federation Civic Fund—a nonprofit that supports youth engagement and enfranchisement, and that, like the other organizations mentioned in this piece, receives funding from Carnegie Corporation of New York—sees a link between voting rights and issues that have gripped the American public over the last several months.

“I don’t think that protecting voting rights will on its own lead to an end to police violence, to poverty, to systemic racism,” he says. “But it’s very clear that there are common themes here, with a set of incredibly powerful people in this country—policymakers, judges, and police—whose actions indicate that black people's lives don't matter, that their voices and votes don't matter.” To Singer, it’s evident that if we hope to solve pressing national problems, we need to empower all Americans to join the conversation—“especially,” he says, “the people most affected by systemic injustice.” For his organization and like-minded partners, it’s a question of advancing equal rights for all Americans regardless of life circumstances or political party: not left, not right, but forward.


A Blow to Injustice

Fifty years ago this August, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, systemic injustice was rampant. A variety of obstacles hindered would-be voters, from confusingly worded “literacy tests” to poll taxes, especially in the South. At the whim of local registrars, certain voters might be asked to prove their knowledge of the Constitution, or might get disqualified for abbreviating words on their applications. Such tactics had been disenfranchising minority citizens since the late nineteenth century. The result was that, in 1962, less than seven percent of black Mississippi residents could vote. A year later, in Selma, Alabama, a mere 156 of the city’s 15,000 eligible black voters were registered.

This widespread discrimination gave rise to historic protests, including Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma, Alabama. The violence that his marchers suffered at the hands of state troopers, combined with years’ worth of earlier protests, inspired President Johnson to appear before Congress on March 15, 1965, to make his case for a voting rights law. Comparing the Selma events to battles of the American Revolution and the Civil War, Johnson asserted that the issue of voting rights was critical to American identity itself. “Rarely are we met with a challenge…to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved Nation,” he said. “The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue”—and should Americans fail to respond to it, “we will have failed as a people and as a nation.” The question of Black voting rights, he suggested, implicated everyone, and was for everyone to answer: “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem,” he stated.

The Voting Rights Act, which Johnson signed into law five months later, went a long way toward solving this problem. The brilliance of the law—often seen as the most effective civil rights law ever adopted by Congress—lay in both its geographic particularity and its preventive approach. The VRA contained a formula for identifying states and jurisdictions with low turnout or with histories of discriminatory voting practices, and required those regions to obtain approval from the federal government before modifying their voting laws. The formula relied on two factors: whether an area was using a discriminatory "test or device" (such as a literacy test) that impeded citizens from registering and voting, and whether its registration or presidential turnout rates lingered below 50 percent.  In addition to approving a law, the federal government could take actions such as sending federal examiners to evaluate people registering to vote, removing biased registrars from the equation, and sending federal observers to keep an eye on polling activities. In 1965, these strictures applied to Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia, along with swaths of North Carolina and a single county in Arizona. Over the years, that list would evolve as certain jurisdictions proved themselves innocent of discrimination, and obtained relief from coverage, and as others were found newly guilty of bias.

The law’s effects were immediate. By the end of 1965, 250,000 African Americans had become registered voters. By 1968, voter turnout among African Americans in Mississippi had risen to 59 percent from about seven percent in March 1965.These trends would continue. According to a 2015 report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, more black than white Southerners cast ballots in one third of U.S. presidential elections since 1965. Nationally, black turnout exceeded white in the 2012 presidential election.

More Minority Representation

The VRA affected not only who voted, but also who got elected. In 1972, the first black southern politicians since Reconstruction won seats in Congress. By 1990, 495 African Americans served as elected officials in Georgia, up from three before the passage of the VRA. As of March 2015, Alabamans had elected 757 black officials—a steep rise from 86 in 1970—and more than 17,000 members of minority groups held office across the nation, up from fewer than 1,000 in 1965. While minorities remain underrepresented in elected offices, these figures nonetheless indicate substantial progress in civic engagement and political influence.

Yet progress has hardly been consistent. Since 2010 in particular, the United States has suffered a vast number of efforts to curtail voting rights. “It seems like every time I wake up there’s something new coming out,” says Anita Johnson, a Wisconsin-based community organizer and a plaintiff in a voting rights–related case for the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that provides legal, communications, and organizing support to grassroots movements across the nation. She points out that weekend voting has been taken away and residency requirements for voting have been changed. “Now, when Wisconsinites move, they must live in their new homes for 28 days before being able to vote nearby. …I’m embarrassed that legislators think they can take us back to 1950 when it comes to these voting laws.”

Why this regression? Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, sees the problem as a response to President Obama’s election and anxiety over demographic change. As she explains the connection, “The places that saw the greatest increase in voter suppression bills were the places that saw the greatest increase in African American voting turnout, and also the states that saw the greatest increases in Latino population growth in the last decade.”              

According to a Brennan Center report, supporters of these laws claim they save money, ease the administrative process, and prevent voter fraud. Numerous studies have shown voter fraud, often used as a defense for voter ID laws, to be a red herring; the student journalism initiative News21 found in 2012 that an “infinitesimal” number of cases had occurred since 2000. The restrictions often disproportionately affect people students, the elderly, and the disabled, in addition to the poor and people of color.

Anita Johnson has spoken with many such people, who, she says, often have pressing priorities beyond casting a ballot. She recalls urging an African-American man to get a new ID card—a requirement for voting in Wisconsin, which passed a tough voter ID law in 2011—only to learn that the man couldn’t afford the fee; that money had to go to food for his child.

Former felons are another group confronting fresh difficulties in certain states. Richard Straight hasn’t voted since 2004, when he was arrested, because of a 2011 policy requiring former felons in Iowa to apply to the Governor’s office to get their voting rights back. A retired truck driver who served in the military, Straight lives off Social Security and can’t afford the $500 lawyer’s fee required to file the application. “It’s like you’re no longer an American citizen,” he says. “It feels like I’m still being punished for what I did years ago, to this day.” If he could, he would not only vote but also run for city council; he’s passionate about issues like street repairs and the cost of city maintenance. But he’s not hopeful about either goal. “I don’t see how I can ever vote again,” he says.

Shelby County Turns Back the Clock

The single most damaging legal shift in recent years—one that has permitted many others to occur—is the 2013 Shelby County Supreme Court decision. After an Alabama jurisdiction challenged the constitutionality of two sections of the VRA, the Supreme Court declared one outdated: Section 4, which included the formula that determined the geographic areas subject to federal preclearance. With that, preclearance ended. Efforts to update Section 4 are ongoing, but—in a time when partisan gridlock makes voters wish for President Johnson’s productivity—it’s unclear when new legislation will pass.

The Shelby decision yielded swift backlash. President Obama voiced his disappointment, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered a scathing dissent. “Hubris is a fit word for today's demolition of the VRA,” she wrote, adding that the act should not be destroyed on account of its success: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Immediately after the announcement of the Shelby decision, voters got wet. The Texas voter ID law that the VRA had blocked in 2012—the same law that would later prevent Menchaca from voting—went into effect. A month later, North Carolina passed what the Nation deemed “the most sweeping voting restrictions in the country.” The state cut early voting, ended same-day registration, and introduced strict voter ID requirements, among other measures. “It’s been a deluge,” says Katherine Culliton-González, director of the Voter Protection for Advancement Project. “A complete and total deluge.”

Like Weiser, she points to backlash against voters of color—a trend she connects to the fact that America is on its way to becoming a majority nonwhite country. For instance, Latino, Asian, and Pacific Islander voters are confronting burdensome proof-of-citizenship requirements. She also emphasizes the protean nature of discriminatory practices. Once voters figure out how to address any given problem, others arise: a jurisdiction changes a form, or starts to ask for ID, or doesn’t let people get assistance. “It’s a lesson that everyone should have learned from 1965,” Culliton-González says. “There’s not any one thing we can litigate against and be done, because discrimination will then rear its head in other ways. That’s why we need preclearance.”

In addition to mandating preclearance, the VRA had required states to publicize proposed voting law changes and let citizens weigh in on any potential alterations. Now, it’s much harder simply to figure out if and how laws are changing, Culliton-González says. The tasks of identifying, publicizing, and litigating against restrictive voting laws have fallen to local communities, public interest attorneys, and the nonprofit sector. Organizations like Advancement Project, the Brennan Center, and the Shelby Response Fund (which coordinates funding for a number of litigating groups) share in this demanding and expensive work. In a time of low voter turnout—only 36.4 percent of eligible Americans voted in the 2014 midterm elections—all of these efforts divert needed resources from registering voters and getting out the vote, notes Karen Narasaki, manager of the Shelby Response Fund, housed in Neo Philanthropy’s State Infrastructure Fund.

Narasaki emphasizes the importance of catching violations on the local level, which is where most discriminatory tactics occur. “Things are happening in small communities everywhere, and you may not know about them in time to do anything about them,” she says. “All those changes are less exciting and harder to find, but as a practical matter they’re very important.”

That’s why, in the absence of federal oversight, the Fund’s grantees train and organize volunteers to monitor local elections; the Advancement Project engages in similar efforts. Monitoring elections can both prevent problems and provide a means to “spring into action” if a law does change, Narasaki says. It’s also yielded a surprising benefit: new and productive relationships between voting advocates and election officials, “many of whom really want the system to work.” In some cases, officials have started asking local volunteers to help with outreach and other needs.

Yet these benefits can feel small in comparison with the damage that the Shelby decision inflicted. “It keeps hitting me, how much we’ve lost,” Culliton-González says. “It’s still hitting me a couple of years later.”

Why We Don’t Vote

Restrictive laws are far from the only problems hindering American voters today. The laws intersect with a variety of other factors, from misinformation about polling places to the difficulties of registering that keep voter turnout low. According to Helena Huang, director of Philanthropy and Communications for State Voices, all of these barriers contribute to a widespread sense of disenchantment that leaves people uninterested in voting: they feel unmotivated to fix problems, including systematic disenfranchisement itself. Huang, whose organization is a nonpartisan network that coordinates social-justice groups within and across many states, says, “It’s one of the cruel ironies. At precisely the moment where we need people to be making sure the government is working for them, they feel so disenfranchised and alienated that they no longer want to participate.”

Matt Singer, of the youth-oriented Bus Federation, echoes this concern about people’s disgust with the system. He cites the negativity of the political process, the “drumbeat of Super PACs and attack ads and partisanship, which is not what anyone wants, but especially not what young people want.” This atmosphere can keep voters—particularly young ones—away from the ballot box, he stresses, yet it inspires his hope for recasting the mood of the democratic process: “How can we make democracy engaging and approachable and exciting enough that people want to vote?” (One answer, for his organization, lies in their choice of transportation: volunteers move around on the Federation’s four buses, not in cars, simply because being together on the buses is more fun.)

Singer believes other factors contribute to youth disengagement. “The political system doesn’t take young people very seriously, because young people don’t vote, and because the political system thinks young people don’t vote,” he says. Political campaigns tend to send information to people who have voted before. “When people say young people are too poorly informed to vote—well, young people are not getting that information.”

Lack of information doesn’t create problems just for youth. According to Singer, six million people did not vote in the 2008 election because they missed a deadline or didn’t know how to register. That statistic inspired his organization to start National Voter Registration Day, which spreads the gospel of voter registration over traditional and social media, in addition to sending activists and celebrities onto the streets to motivate people to register to vote. The federation also runs voter registration and turnout drives and teaches young people how to cast ballots.  Hundreds of national and local organizations partner in promoting National Voter Registration Day, which will take place on September 22, 2015.

New immigrants also face particular challenges to voting, Huang says—partly because many come from countries with different attitudes toward government. “For some Asian communities, not only is the concept of democracy a new one, but in some societies, political participation was cause for severe punishment. So we have a huge cultural barrier there.” As part of State Voices’ work welcoming new immigrants into American society, its New American Voters program in Oregon sends representatives to citizenship ceremonies, where they register new citizens to vote. That program has a 90 percent success rate, and has been picked up by colleagues in Georgia.

The efforts of advocates and sympathetic lawmakers are unquestionably easing certain voting rights problems. Take voter registration: it is widely considered the largest barrier to voting, and in many states, it remains paper based and error prone. Yet more and more states are recognizing this issue and adopting online registration; over half may offer it in time for the 2016 presidential election.

In a similar vein, the Electronic Registration Information Center, created by Pew Charitable Trusts and run by the states, uses up-to-the-minute technology to allow states to identify people who have died or moved, which helps in updating voter rolls and registering new voters.

Citizens often lack information about the voting process, including polling site locations; Pew’s Voting Information Project, which offers multiple online tools and apps in partnership with Google, Facebook, and other organizations, lets voters see their ballots, and access turn-by-turn directions to polling places, once they enter their addresses. Oregon’s new Motor Voter law, adopted in March, marks another significant improvement: it automatically registers people to vote when they conduct a transaction at the Department of Motor Vehicles. This program is expected to enfranchise an estimated 300,000 people. (California has already expressed interest in adopting a similar law.)

David Becker, who directs election initiatives at Pew, feels optimistic about the prospect of increasing access through modernization. “We’ve seen a shift over the last six or seven years,” he says. “It’s not a question of do you upgrade technology; it’s a question of when.” On this issue, he emphasizes, Democrats and Republicans often agree.


Indeed, the story of voting in America can’t be reduced to partisan battles over restrictive laws: “There are advances both on the good side and the bad side, and sometimes even in the same places,” the Brennan Center’s Weiser says. Virginia has passed a voter ID law, but it also started offering online voter registration and designated minimum numbers of voting machines and workers at polling places to cut down on long lines on Election Day. Florida has introduced an online registration system even as it limited voter registration drives, curbed early voting, and effectively disenfranchised people with criminal convictions. According to the Brennan Center, between the January start of the 2015 legislative session and mid-May, 113 restrictive measures were introduced or passed in state legislatures—and so were 464 bills that could improve access to registration and voting.

Yet owing both to the ongoing push for restrictive laws, and to what Weiser describes as a “systematic underinvestment in our elections,” voting rights advocates can never rest. “We repeatedly come up against cliffs where all the voting machines are about to expire, or we haven’t registered anyone to vote, or our voter rolls are a mess, or no one can find their polling places. We’re going to sound the alarm and there will be advocacy and it will get solved, and then a new crisis will come.” The next crisis, she says, concerns antiquated voting machines: “We need to be getting on that quickly or we’ll end up with election meltdowns.”

Now, advocates are waging a two-pronged attack. “We need to both improve the voting system for everybody, and cut off opportunities for voter suppression,” Weiser says. “I’m confident on the system side, but we’ll have to see for how long we’ll need to continue fighting voter suppression battles.” For Richard Straight, Daniel Menchaca, and the countless other Americans prevented from voting in recent years, those battles can’t be won quickly enough.