Americans going to the polls in 2014 will face a voting landscape that is shifting underneath their feet as demographic changes roil the political status quo in many of the states that have enacted the toughest restrictions on access to the ballot box.
So concluded two recent reports looking at the status of voting rights across the country before the midterm elections this November.
Since 2010, when a strong GOP performance led to Republican majorities in a number of state legislatures, there has been a surge in measures restricting voting, and they are slated to be implemented in 22 states, according to “State of Voting,” a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice, a voting rights advocacy organization at the New York University School of Law. In 15 states, the laws will be in place for the first time in the 2014 elections, pending the outcome of legal challenges.
Another report, “True South,” published by liberal think tank the Center for American Progress and the Southern Election Fund, looked at voting rights and other policies largely affecting minority populations in the 13 Southern states that the Black Belt runs through. The report, authored by CAP senior fellow and former NAACP president Ben Jealous, was timed to mark the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, a campaign to register as many black voters as possible in Mississippi, notorious for its efforts to suppress African-American political power.
Jealous posited that in 2014, too, there is a correlation between the rising numbers of minorities, including Hispanic and Asian-American immigrants, exercising the franchise and the efforts to hamper their access to the polling place. Critics have long said that laws that require voters to show photo identification at the polls, among other restrictions on registration and early voting, disproportionately affect Democratic-leaning voters.
“In so many ways, this moment in history resembles the moment that Freedom Summer activists faced in 1964,” the report reads. “The demographic and political winds are shifting in ways that favor progressive voters and voters of color. In response, the right wing is pushing back by attacking these voters’ basic civil rights,”
The Brennan Center study, authored by Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program, and Erik Opsal, a communications manager, corroborated that view. The report found that seven of the 11 states with the highest black turnout in 2008 and nine out of 12 states with the biggest Latino population growth passed new restrictions on voting. Nine of the 15 states previously covered by the now obsolete Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because they demonstrated a history of racial discrimination have changed their election laws since 2010.
Jealous said at an event in Washington this week that political organization was the key to overcoming these obstacles and realizing a progressive vision for the region.
“The South in my experience as an organizer … is like a light switch. Either it is on or it is off,” he said, noting that progress was often quickly followed by backlash. “Things are changing, and there is great hope because now we have the numbers to see things change faster.”
The Brennan Center study emphasized the legal challenges to the measures. Lawsuits are contesting the new restrictions in five states, with more challenges possible closer to Election Day. Activists are working to educate voters about what will be required of them to cast a ballot.
“This national struggle over voting rights is the greatest in decades. Voters in nearly half the country could head to the polls in November worse off than they were four years ago,” the report read. “This needs to change.”