Voting Measures Further Disenfranchise Minorities

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In a three-sentence order handed down last Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court further disenfranchised Ohio’s minority voters by upholding sweeping new limitations on the state’s early voting period.

The order, a temporary stay granted by the Court’s conservative majority which suspends two lower court rulings, upheld Republican-backed voting restrictions signed into law by Governor John Kasich in February. The law specifically eliminated the early in-person voting period known as “Golden Week,” during which Ohio residents could register to vote and cast early ballots on the same day. These restrictions coincide with further measures enacted by Secretary of State Jon Husted just days later, which slashed Sundays and select weeknights from the early voting schedule. While proponents argue that the new policies will simplify voting and decrease alleged voter fraud, history and context provide a disturbingly different picture of the intentional disenfranchisement of marginalized voters — all in a year when both Husted and Kasich are up for re-election.

Ohio has a history of Election Day controversy. During the 2004 presidential election, waiting times at some Ohio polling stations topped 12 hours, bringing concerns of voting accessibility to the forefront. As a direct response, the state implemented a 35-day early voting period. Since citizens must register to vote at least 30 days prior to election day, Golden Week, at the outset of the early voting window, afforded those with limited access to polling stations the opportunity to register and vote concurrently. The new restrictions eliminate this valuable option.

The NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union jointly filed the federal case against Husted in May on the grounds that the Ohio law infringes upon the constitutional rights of voters with limited access, including people with disabilities, seniors lacking transportation, blue-collar workers with inflexible schedules and several other blocs of voters. “Early voting is not a social luxury,” said NAACP President Cornell William Brooks in a statement. “It’s a civic essential, particularly for citizens working long hours on the job or in the home.”

Furthermore, Husted’s decision to eliminate Sunday voting disproportionately affects black voters, many of whom have, in recent elections, participated in a unique “Souls to Polls” program that bussed churchgoers to polling locations after Sunday services. Given the program’s well-documented success in boosting voter turnout in the black community, it is unlikely this targeted disenfranchisement went unnoticed at the time of Husted’s decision.

Since black voters and other groups hurt most by these restrictions tend to vote for Democratic candidates, the political motivation behind this legislation is crystal clear. It’s no secret that political motivations will at times influence policy, but it is unacceptable for these calculations to come at the expense of already marginalized communities.

It’s an unfortunate reality, of course, that many would-be voters have grown disillusioned with the political system. When politicians act outside the best interests of their constituents, citizens have reason to feel that their grievances are being ignored and that their government does not accurately represent them. Voter turnout, one of the principal measures of the vitality of democratic government, suffers as a result. The detrimental effects that restrictions like Ohio’s have upon American democracy, therefore, are twofold, reducing electoral participation through both disenfranchisement and disenchantment.

Yet the frustrating reality is that only by voting can we effect the change we need to see. We’ve seen heartening trends elsewhere indicating that this year, marginalized and disillusioned voices will be heard. Following the national outrage over the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, the city of Ferguson, MO — a city whose population is over two-thirds black but largely governed and policed by white officials — has seen a sharp increase in its residents’ voter registration. The real test is whether or not these newly registered voters turn out to cast their ballots. For them, as with Ohio voters, unimpeded access to the polls is absolutely critical, and ample early voting opportunities are necessary to ensure this access.

Though the process is flawed in many ways, voting — for those of us able to exercise our right to do so — remains an essential step toward creating a government that we believe represents our views. Our elected officials have demonstrated, however, that this right is no longer something we can take for granted.

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