Op-ed: We need to restore the strength of the Voting Rights Act

Camille Wimbish is election administration director for the Ohio Voter Rights Coalition.

Where you live in Ohio should have no bearing on whether or not your vote is counted. Unfortunately, it does.

Wimbish

If you cast an absentee ballot in Hamilton County but misspell your street name, your vote likely will be discarded, according to a pending court case, NEOCH v. Husted. In Butler County, however, a misspelled street name won’t get your vote tossed out. If the zip code on your absentee ballot is missing, largely white, rural counties probably will count your vote. Hamilton, Cuyahoga, Franklin and other urban counties with lots of non-white voters probably will not.

These discrepancies call into question whether they could unfairly influence the outcome of this year’s presidential contest in Ohio -- a must-win state for any candidate seeking the White House, and where polls predict a close contest.

In the NEOCH case, voting rights supporters contend that the Republican-controlled Ohio legislature passed laws that intentionally limit voter participation by African Americans and other groups that tend to favor Democrats.

Voting Rights Act gutted

The case takes center stage after a federal appeals court recently tossed out a North Carolina voting law, saying it violated the Voting Rights Act by targeting “African-Americans with almost surgical precision.’’ Before enacting that law, the North Carolina legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices, then passed a law that restricted voting in ways that disproportionately affected African Americans.

Ohio and North Carolina were among 17 states that began to overhaul their election laws soon after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Writing for the conservative majority at the time, Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged that voting discrimination still exists. Nevertheless, he asserted a puzzling argument that states that have a history of discrimination should no longer be burdened by seeking federal approval for elections changes. The ruling gave a green light for states to pass laws now shown to be racially discriminatory.

A U.S. District Court invalidated NEOCH’s discriminatory laws in July. The state’s attorney general and secretary of state appealed to the Sixth Circuit, which heard arguments on Aug. 4.

More bridges to cross

The flurry of discriminatory voting laws enacted, and the courts recent pattern of striking them down, prove the need to restore the Voting Rights Act to full strength.

In March 2015, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, a Cincinnati Republican, went to Selma, Ala. to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday – the day unarmed voting rights marchers were met with clubs and tear gas as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama. Following his trip to Selma, Portman was quoted as saying he “hadn’t had a chance to review’’ pending legislation to beef up the Voting Rights Act.

America has made great strides since Bloody Sunday. Still, the rash of discriminatory voting laws that have been passed, and the reluctance of Sen. Portman and others to forcefully respond to them, show a nation that still has more bridges to cross.

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