National News

Protection of Voting Rights for Minorities Has Fallen Sharply, a New Report Finds

Posted September 12, 2018 3:12 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Federal actions to enforce voting rights for minorities have declined sharply since the Supreme Court struck down the core of the 1965 Voting Rights Act five years ago, the federal Commission on Civil Rights says in a sweeping new report on voting issues. Even enforcement of the act’s remaining provisions has dropped markedly, the report states.

In an interview before the report’s formal release on Wednesday, the head of the commission, Catherine E. Lhamon, called the present state of discrimination against minority voters “enduring and pernicious,” and said it was poorly addressed under federal law.

“To be at this point in our history, without either meaningful federal protections in law or in practice from the United States Department of Justice, is a low point” since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, she said. “And that’s dangerous.”

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, created during the Eisenhower administration in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery bus boycott, is a bipartisan panel responsible for assessing the extent of discrimination and proposing ways to reduce it. The commission’s findings played a crucial role in the passage of major civil rights legislation in the 1960s and the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

In recent decades, the panel has at times become a partisan football. After being packed with conservatives during the George W. Bush administration, it reversed course on key civil rights issues, opposing reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act and issuing a report questioning the benefits of diversity in schools.

But in a foreword to the commission’s latest report, Lhamon wrote that its key recommendations were unanimously supported by the commission’s eight members — six Democrats and two Republicans.

Not since 1981 has the commission produced such a comprehensive analysis of barriers to voting. The 498-page report strongly urges Congress to break a partisan deadlock and expand the protections of the Voting Rights Act for minorities, to restore some of the enforcement powers nullified by the Supreme Court, or both.

The court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder ended the Justice Department’s long-standing power to block and to litigate changes in voting rules in nine states, most of them in the South, and in parts of six others. The court reasoned that the blatant racism that once justified such pervasive oversight no longer was widespread.

The justices invited Congress to devise a new formula for reviewing such changes, but proposals to do that have repeatedly failed to gain bipartisan support. As a result, some state election practices that would have been blocked earlier — indeed, some that had been blocked — remained in effect for years before being overturned as discriminatory.

Since the Shelby County decision, the Justice Department has fought in court to overturn some of the most restrictive state voting laws, including laws in Texas and North Carolina that courts later said were deliberately designed to thwart minority voters. Even so, the civil rights commission’s report is largely critical of the department’s enforcement of voting-rights laws since Shelby County, both under President Barack Obama’s attorneys general and under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Since 2013, the report noted, 61 lawsuits have alleged that election practices violated the Voting Rights Act’s key remaining provision, Section 2, which broadly bans discriminatory election practices. That is a substantial increase in number from the years before the Shelby County decision.

But only four of those suits were brought by the Justice Department, all under Obama. Lhamon called that shocking, given the federal government’s legal might.

In the last five years, the report noted, the department has filed only one case to enforce federal requirements that non-English speakers have access to voting materials in their language, a failing frequently cited by Asian, Alaskan and Native American groups.

A lawsuit by voting-rights advocates was required to force Florida officials last week to provide Spanish-language sample ballots to thousands of Puerto Ricans who fled to Florida after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.

Not since 2008 has the Justice Department filed a suit to require polling places to accommodate the disabled, the report found, even though surveys suggest that as many as 6 out of 10 polling places across the country present barriers to disabled people.

In its report, the Civil Rights Commission does not call for the restoration of Justice Department authority over the 15 states. But it does recommend what it calls “a streamlined remedy to review certain changes with known risks of discrimination before they take effect — not after potentially tainted elections.”

The commission also urges legislators to require that changes in voting practices and districts be more widely publicized, on the internet and elsewhere, so that citizens have a chance to challenge any they believe are unfair. Until the Shelby County decision, the Justice Department’s reviews effectively performed that duty in the 15 states where it had authority under the Voting Rights Act.