We Need to Talk About Voting Rights

The right to vote is the cornerstone of any democracy—the representation of a citizen's beliefs, desires, and frustrations with their government. And as we are in that time of year of important Supreme Court decisions, let's not forget the landmark Shelby County v. Holder decision handed down by the Court on June 25, 2013, that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, rendering the important provisions on preclearance basically null.

It's been two years since the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was significantly weakened by the Supreme Court, as well as two years of inaction to repair the damage to the VRA.

Why does this matter? While we're talking about gay marriage and Obamacare decisions this week, understand that the right to vote is being threatened for millions of Americans across the country. Without the ability to vote, citizens are stripped of their direct line and voice into their state capitals, Washington, or even city halls across the country.

This particularly affects racial minorities in states with histories of voter discrimination, states where stricter voter ID laws are being proposed or enacted, states where early voting is being cut back, states where access to language assistance is brought into question.

Prior to the Shelby decision, Section 5 of the VRA was enforceable—states with a pronounced history of voter discrimination, particularly states in the American South, were unable to make changes to voting laws without review by the US Justice Department. Today, the coverage formula that determined which states were subject to preclearance is deemed unconstitutional by the Court, rendering preclearance impossible to enforce.

This matters to me not just as a person of color, as Asian American, but as an American citizen—a privilege that is not accessible to all which comes with the ability to cast a vote, with the ability to have my beliefs represented at all levels of government.

By the way, if you don't vote, let's chat. That's a whole other conversation to have—I'll buy you coffee or something. Or I'll write a post later about that.

On the heels of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, activists recognized that voting rights demanded explicit protection by law—the Reconstruction Amendments and Civil Rights Act did not go far enough. Voter discrimination was rampant post-Reconstruction up until the Sixties—literacy tests, poll taxes, morality tests, etc. were in place throughout various states with the explicit function of preventing black Americans from voting.

The Voting Rights Act, passed and enacted the following year in 1965, was a landmark moment for voting rights—a sweeping piece of legislation that would ensure the right to vote be protected for all Americans, regardless of race or color.

For nearly five decades, the VRA was space of clear bipartisan support—reauthorized time and time again by both Democratic and Republican Congresses and Presidents.

A report by Project Vote published in April 2015 found that the 2014 elections "saw the most depressed voter turnout in 72 years," and that "to date, lawmakers in 24 states have proposed at least 52 bills that threaten voting rights."

Some of the threats to the vote include expanded and strengthened voter ID laws, which studies have found depress voter turnout and discourage voters from going to the polls, as well as the limiting or removal of laws that were meant to improve access to the vote. Xenophobic laws that require proof of citizenship to vote are increasingly being introduced in state legislatures across America.

In terms of the divisive and contentious voter ID laws, for example, studies have found that citizens without photo IDs are disproportionately racial minorities, low income populations, and other disadvantaged communities. Past reports found that 11% of voting-age Americans do not have government-issued photo IDs—more than 1 in 10 of all Americans eligible to vote.

This number is made even more stark when broken down by race. 25% of black Americans do not have government-issue photo IDs, compared to 8% of white Americans.

Do you see where the lack of voter protections may be a problem?

This affects not only black communities across the United States today—not only do Asian American and Pacific Islander communities depend on the Voting rights Act for language assistance, but due to the "perpetual foreigner" myth, AAPIs are disproportionately more likely to be asked for a photo ID than whites.

A majority of Asian voters are still asked for ID at the polls, even in states where IDs are not required. A past Brennan Center for Justice study found that even in New York City, without ID requirements, 1 in 6 Asian voters were asked for an ID in the mid-2000s, while whites were not.

Furthermore, a 2007 Project Vote study found that Asian American voters in states with voter ID laws were 8.5% less likely to vote than in states without such laws.

8.5%.

Of course this isn't all about voter ID laws, but such policies are explicitly what is wrong with our current state of voting access today—and why we need swift action from Congress to pass legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act, reinstating preclearance to ensure review of voting laws.

New legislation introduced earlier this week, the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015, is one such possibility—although a piece of legislation introduced by Congressional Democrats, it is the step America needs to bring back the cornerstone of our democracy. This shouldn't be a partisan issue—it hasn't been for the last five decades, and it shouldn't be today.

Action is more necessary than ever not just because of the upcoming 2016 presidential elections—the first since 1965 without strong voting law oversight—but also because of the countless local, municipal, and state elections that have taken place throughout 2014 and 2015. These elections ostensibly have a more direct impact on our daily lives—our city councils, our school boards, our state legislatures—and the lack of strong voting rights protection is a disservice to all.

We need to be mad about this. We need to call out our legislators about this. We need to act before more Americans lose their right to vote.