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Voting Advocates: Fall Elections Will Lack Protections For Many

This fall voters will go to the polls for the first time without some protections signed into law 49 years ago today, according to a new report.
Image: Supreme Court Issues Orders On Pending Cases
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 25: Supporters of the Voting Rights Act listen to speakers discussing today's rulings outside the U.S. Supreme Court building on June 25, 2013 in Washington, DC. The court ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which aimed at protecting minority voters, is unconstitutional. The high court convened again today to rule on some high profile decisions including two on gay marriage and one on voting rights. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)Win McNamee / Getty Images

The full impact of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act won’t be known until after November’s elections when fewer federal monitors will be at polls and things such as changes to polling places won’t require federal approval, voting rights advocates said Wednesday.

The Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision last year essentially nullified Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act which required jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination from making election changes without prior approval. Plaintiffs had argued that outdated data was being used to determine which states and jurisdictions were subject to pre-approval.

“We don’t know right now what is happening in these jurisdictions that were formerly covered by Section 5,” said Bob Kengle, voting rights project co-director for Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“If a polling place is going to be changed, if polling places are merged at the last minute, well that’s something we are going to find out about at the last minute,” Kengle said.

The federal government deployed 10,702 federal observers to polls to ensure fair elections between 1995 and 2012. But because of the Supreme Court decision, it is not deploying observers except to a few jurisdictions where a court order for monitors has been issued, said Kengle and Barbara Arnwine, president and CEO of the lawyers’ committee, a 51-year-old organization.

“As a result, voters will be much more vulnerable to discrimination during the upcoming (midterm) elections than at any other time in recent years, as they head to the polls without the key protections of the Voting Rights Act,” Arnwine said.

The Department of Justice declined to respond to questions about federal monitors.

Wednesday marked the 49th anniversary of the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that then-President Lyndon B. Johnson said marked “the last of legal barriers tumbling.”

In a report issued Wednesday, voting rights advocates detailed continued discrimination that has occurred since 1995, with information collected from 25 state and regional hearings held by the National Commission on Voting Rights, made up of civil, minority rights groups, labor unions and others.

The report finds that “contrary to the court’s decision, voting discrimination is still rampant,” Arnwine said.

Jurisdictions previously covered under parts of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court eliminated “continue to implement voting laws and procedures that disproportionately affect African American, Latino, Asian and Native American voters,” said a legal advocate.

Jurisdictions that were previously covered under the parts of the Voting Rights Act that the high court eliminated “continue to implement voting laws and procedures that disproportionately effect African American, Latino, Asian and Native American voters,” she said.

She said there were 332 successful voting rights lawsuits and denials of pre-clearance from the Department of Justice and 10 settlements from 1995 to this year.

Redistricting and at-large elections were the most common reasons for lawsuits brought under the Act, but also there were 48 successful lawsuits and 10 non-litigated settlements relating to language translation and assistance, Arnwine said.

Dolores Huerta, a civil rights activist who marched with farm labor rights leader Cesar Chavez, said said she has been involved in get out the vote activities for 60 years.

“As the Latino community grows in numbers and influence grows in terms of political process, we see the discrimination against Latinos seems to be growing,” Huerta said.