July 06, 2017

Voter suppression is the problem, not election fraud, say panelists at voting rights luncheon

The June 28th Second Annual State of Voting Rights luncheon,  sponsored by the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, held in Washington, D.C., featured a panel discussion on new voter I.D. laws and attempts to restrict the right to vote.

Experts discuss recent voter suppression efforts during a luncheon sponsored by the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice

The discussion centered around the ongoing effects of the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling, the lack of judicial oversight in election law and President Trump’s new Election Integrity Commission. Panelists provided examples of discriminatory voter I.D. laws proposed after Shelby and explored ways to make our elections more accessible and reliable.

Shelby v. Holder set the stage for where we are today by removing a key tool, Section 5 (of the Voting Rights Act),” said Todd Cox, director of policy for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Section five requires jurisdictions covered by Section 4b’s preclearance provision to freeze any changes they make to election laws and procedures until those changes have faced administrative review by the attorney general and have been evaluated to have no discriminatory effect, he said.

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, added that “Section 5 blocked hundreds of discriminatory voting cases while it was in effect.” She noted that states that challenged the VRA’s preclearance provision have high concentrations of voting discrimination.

Robert Bauer, partner at Perkins Coie and former White House counsel to President Obama, expressed concern about the new Election Integrity Commission. Headed by Vice President Mike Pence, the committee was formed to investigate voter fraud. Bauer called Pence’s position on the commission a “cruel joke.” He added that “many election officials around the country don’t take [the commission] remotely seriously and are embarrassed by it.” Cox also expressed skepticism about the committee’s purpose: “It’s hard to put a committee together to investigate something that doesn’t exist,” he said.

The panelists also weighed in on polling place issues. Bauer said his work with Obama’s Presidential Commission on Election Administration taught him that line management issues can’t be addressed in isolation because they’re just one part of the system. “If voter registration rolls are inaccurate, you have a line problem. If there’s a problem with the machinery, that becomes a line problem,” he said. While Clarke praised D.C.’s voting system, she expressed disappointment that “we can pay taxes online but we can’t register to vote online,” and admitted that the country is “sluggish in figuring out how we can use or integrate technology to make it easier for people to vote.”

Progress to expand voting rights may be slow going forward, Cox said. “A lot of tension with election reform is from incumbency,” he said, adding that incumbents often oppose measures that would alter their constituencies, such as redistricting.

And it seems the Department of Justice is no longer an ally against voter suppression, whereas prior to Shelby County v. Holder, DOJ was a defender of the VRA. “Clearly the Civil Rights Commission no longer sees the DOJ as a partner,” said Cox. The increasing politicization of election reform has contributed to voter suppression and discrimination, the panel agreed, but looking at election reform through a bipartisan lens makes the expansion of voting rights attainable.