Missouri voters pass ballot measure to erode voting rights protections

(Photo Credit: Michelle Hartman via Flickr Creative Commons)

Despite Donald J. Trump’s victory in the race to capture 270 electoral votes and clinch the U.S. presidency, most Americans did not vote for him. In fact, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote — with more registered voters casting ballots for the first female to come close to winning the post of the U.S. presidency.

Many eligible voters though, cast no ballot at all. The number of black voters was down compared to 2008 and 2012. While there are likely multiple factors involved in that decline – one things is certain: in the past three years, many of the protections provided under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have been whittled away. FSRN’s Nell Abram spoke with Denise Lieberman, Senior Attorney at Advancement Project and coordinator of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, to talk about state efforts to roll back voter protections.

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Nell Abram: Voters in Missouri further chipped away at voting rights this election when they approved Amendment 6. What does the amendment say and why update the state’s constitution?

Denise Leiberman: Amendment 6 amends our state constitution to weaken the protections it contains for voting so that lawmakers will have permission to implement restrictive voting laws, like a photo ID requirement to vote. The reason we had to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot is because a photo ID requirement to vote is currently unconstitutional in the state of Missouri. Courts here found that such a requirement violated Missourians right to vote.

NA: Some people say: “What’s the problem? So you have to show a government ID to vote. Get one.” Your response?

DL: Well, many people are unable to obtain a state-issued photo ID. In fact, 220,000 current, valid voters in the state of Missouri – voters who have identification, since Missouri already requires all voters to show ID – these are voters who are valid, eligible voters, who have been voting with no problems, who have identification, who do not have a state-issued photo ID to cast a ballot. And for those voters it may be difficult, if not impossible, to obtain one. For people who do not have the underlying documents necessary to get a state ID, like a certified birth certificate, they will be unable to comply. For some people, those documents simply don’t exist, so it doesn’t matter how much help you get. But for others, they may have to undertake significant bureaucratic hurdles, go to multiple government offices, request documentation from other states, and for voters whose underlying documents have discrepancies or errors, that can be an exercise in futility, it can be very time consuming, and very costly.

NA: And who are these voters?

DL: Senior citizens, whose IDs may be expired, would no longer be able to use those IDs. We know students, who may not have driver’s licenses but have valid student identification, would be affected. People with disabilities and other people who live in big cities, who don’t drive. And we know that voters of color are far more likely to be affected than other voters. In fact, in Missouri, African Americans are twice as likely to lack a state-issued photo ID than other voters. And we know that working families are more likely to be affected, people who don’t have flexibility in their job schedules to get to the numerous offices required to get these forms of ID. Most DMV offices are not open evenings and weekends, so that means people have to take time off work and lose a day’s pay. People who don’t have access to transportation are going to have to find a means of transportation to get to these multiple offices. And for people who work hourly wage jobs, for people who are taking care of children or elderly parents, who don’t have that kind of flexibility or don’t have the funds to procure all the underlying documentation, or get to all of these places, or can’t afford to lose a day’s pay, they’re simply not going to be able to participate in the future.

NA: Denise Leiberman with the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, in 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a key component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 called preclearance. The landmark law was designed to remove systemic roadblocks for black voters, and required nine specific states to get federal approval before enacting any changes to election law. While Missouri was not one of the nine states, did that Supreme Court decision embolden efforts in Missouri?

DL: Absolutely. The Supreme Court’s gutting of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act several years ago opened the door to new restrictive voting practices in states around the country, even states that weren’t subject to preclearance provisions. Because it set a tone of acceptability for restrictive voting measures. We saw this year, in this presidential election, 14 states with new restrictive voting laws on the books for the first time. And it’s opened a climate of fear about voting. And so, that climate creates a disincentive for people to vote; when people hear that voting is being made harder, they simply stay home.

NA: This year, there were hundreds of fewer polling places, leading to much longer lines. Do you think broad attacked affected the black voter turnout in this election?

DL: African American turnout was down, and this is due to the cumulative effect of new restrictive voting practices, cuts to polling place locations, making it difficult to get to polling places, increased lines at polling places that now had to service more voters, and new rules that made it much more difficult for poll workers to navigate the process also creating long lines for voters. All of these together sent a message to voters, particularly voters of color, that their voice wasn’t wanted.

NA: Finally, this was the first presidential poll since the Voting Rights Act was gutted. What’s your takeaway?

DL: We’ve seen this before. Every time communities have risen up to demand a voice, particularly communities of color, throughout our nation’s history we have seen this kind of backlash and trying to silence people who are stepping up, and we’re going to fight that. What it means is that people are going to have to come together more intentionally than ever, and more determined than ever, because that is the vehicle that gives us our voice in this society.

Denise Lieberman is Senior Attorney at Advancement Project and coordinator of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition.

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