Congressional Democrats scrutinize state elections laws for effect on minority voters

By: and - May 27, 2021 6:00 am

A young activist demonstrates for police reform and voting rights on the National Mall. Photo by Allison Stevens.

WASHINGTON—Members of a U.S. House panel on Monday debated whether some state elections laws disenfranchise certain voters, including people of color, and split along party lines in their conclusions.

The chair of the elections subcommittee of the House Administration Committee, Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), voiced his concerns about recent voting requirement laws in states such as Georgia and Texas, as well as those that have been passed in his home state. 

Butterfield said the effect of such laws is to make it much more difficult for some people to vote, including rural residents and minority groups.

Butterfield added that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prevented states from enacting voting laws that could harm voters of color, and he said that Congress needs to reinstate such protections.

“The Texas and North Carolina voter ID laws illustrate the critical role that the Voting Rights Act played in protecting the rights of minority voters and exemplify the need for Congress, for us, to enact legislation to revitalize federal protection of minority voting rights,” he said.

Nazita Lajevard, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University, said her research has focused on how voter ID laws affect minority voters. 

“Across the board, my colleagues and I have found that these laws impose a disproportionate burden on minority voters; our research consistently has found a negative and significant empirical link between voter identification laws and minority turnout in the United States,” she said in her opening statement.

Matthew Campbell, a staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colo., said that voter ID requirements also erect barriers to voting for Native Americans.

“Due to ongoing discrimination and governmental neglect, many Native Americans live in overcrowded homes that do not have addresses, do not receive mail, and are located on dirt roads that become impassable with inclement weather,” he said. 

Campbell added that many tribal IDs are not automatically accepted as proper documentation for voter registration “despite how unreasonably difficult it is for American Indian and Alaska Natives to get a state ID.”

Wisconsin Rep. Bryan Steil via CSPAN3

But the ranking member of the panel, Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wis.), echoed a frequent Republican argument that most Americans need ID to purchase alcohol or to go through airport security. A driver’s license is not required to fly within the U.S. borders, but a traveler will have to go through additional identity and security screening at the TSA security checkpoint. 

He asked one of the witnesses, Lori Roman, the president of the American Constitutional Rights Union in Florida, if voter ID laws had a discriminatory intent. The ACRU was founded as a conservative alternative to the American Civil Liberties Union and describes itself as focused on protecting constitutional civil rights and promoting election integrity.

“No, if applied to as you indicated,” she said, referring to how his state requires voter IDs and how identification is needed to purchase alcohol.

In Wisconsin, the strict voter ID law, first implemented in 2016, was litigated for several years, and a former Republican staff person testified that Republicans were “giddy” as they discussed the idea in a closed caucus meeting, saying it would have make it harder to vote for neighborhoods in Milwaukee and college campuses, referencing Black Milwaukeeans who tend to be Democrats.

Wisconsin also made accessing DMV locations where voters can get ID cards to vote for free more difficult by closing stations and decreasing hours. The current slate of more than a dozen election bills moving through the Legislature includes several bills that are targeting larger cities, such as forbidding private donations to help an election run smoothly, such as those given by the Center for Tech and Civic Life.

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Measures to make it more difficult to vote absentee will disproportionally target the elderly and disabled, as well as low-income individuals with less access to transportation. They include limiting ballot drop-off sites, limiting who can return a ballot on another person’s behalf and other restrictions that advocates such as the League of Women Voters and Disability Rights Wisconsin have been strongly opposing.

Wisconsin Democrats in Congress have been part of a broad coalition of Democrats that have pressed to restore the Voting Rights Act to protect voting rights for minorities and others.

Rep. Gwen Moore headshot
Rep. Gwen Moore via Facebook

Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) told the Wisconsin Examiner in 2019 after voting for a bill to give the federal government broader rights to police voting right violations that Wisconsin “really has suffered under the Supreme Court decision of 2013. After that ruling, then-Gov. Scott Walker — someone I’d been fighting since 1990 to prevent him from enacting an onerous voter ID law — he prevailed in 2016.”

Moore cited a University of Wisconsin-Madison study showing that between 12,000 and 23,000 registered voters in Madison and Milwaukee were deterred from voting by the voter ID law while Donald Trump won the state by fewer than 23,000 votes. “It’s important and imperative that we restore enforcement of the Voting Rights Act,” Moore said.

Butterfield, the chairman, said that the panel would continue to examine how voter ID laws affect communities of color as Democrats work to advance their elections and campaign finance reform package, H.R. 1. 

That bill has passed the House and is now waiting for action in the Senate, where it’s not clear how Democrats will gain enough votes to send it to Biden’s desk.

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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance. Before joining States Newsroom, Ariana covered public health and chemical policy on Capitol Hill for E&E News. As a Florida native, she's worked for the Miami Herald and her hometown paper, the Tampa Bay Times. Her work has also appeared in the Chicago Tribune and NPR. She is a graduate of the University of Florida.

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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.

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