September 29, 2008
Below is an overview of the ACLU Voting Rights Project's recent litigation designed to protect the rights of voters in this election cycle and beyond. Established in 1965, the Voting Rights Project has worked to protect the gains in political participation since passage of the historic Voting Rights Act (VRA) that same year. Since its inception, the Voting Rights Project has aggressively and successfully challenged efforts that dilute minority voting strength or obstruct the ability of minority communities to elect candidates of their choice. The Project has filed more than 300 lawsuits to enforce the provisions of the VRA and the U.S. Constitution.
- ALABAMA – Lawsuit challenging Alabama's disfranchisement laws, including the denial of voting rights to individuals who have been convicted of felonies involving "moral turpitude," even though the state constitution does not define which felonies fall into this ambiguous and antiquated category. Thousands of Alabamians are disenfranchised under a much broader category of convictions than is permissible under the constitution, relying in part on an unlawful opinion issued by the state attorney general. Case is pending.
- MISSISSIPPI – Lawsuit challenging the state's denial of voting rights to citizens with felony convictions. Although the Mississippi Constitution permits people who have been convicted of a crime to vote for president and vice president, election administrators are denying that right in practice. A judge ruled against our injunction in September, we intend to appeal.
- TENNESSEE – Lawsuit challenging a law that made the restoration of voting rights for people convicted of crimes contingent on the payment of all outstanding legal financial obligations, namely restitution and child support fees. The effect of this law is nothing more than a modern-day poll tax that requires people to pay fees before they are eligible to vote. A judge rejected most of our claims in September – our due process claim has not been decided – we intend to appeal.
- ARIZONA – Lawsuit challenging two aspects of Arizona's felon disfranchisement law: (a) the denial of voting rights to ex-felons based on their inability to pay the court fines, fees, and restitution associated with their sentences; and (b) the disfranchisement of people convicted of certain offenses which never existed when Congress enacted Section 2 of the 14th Amendment, which grants states the authority to disfranchise people "for participation in rebellion, or other crime." We are expecting a decision from the court in the near future.
- LITIGATION/REPORT – The ACLU has brought or participated in litigation on behalf of American Indians in five western states—Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming. The litigation challenged a variety of discriminatory election practices, including: at-large elections; redistricting plans that diluted Indian voting strength; the failure to comply with one person, one vote; unfounded allegations of election fraud on Indian reservations; discriminatory voter registration procedures; onerous identification requirements for voting; the lack of minority language assistance in voting; and the refusal to comply with the preclearance provisions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. A report highlighting these legal challenges is forthcoming.
- ALASKA – Lawsuit asking state and local elections officials to provide effective language assistance to citizens who speak Yup'ik, the primary language of a majority of voters in the Bethel region of Alaska. The legal challenge was brought on behalf of four Alaska Natives and four tribal governments. A federal judge granted our preliminary injunction in July and ordered election officials to provide language assistance in advance of the election.
- SOUTH CAROLINA – First of its kind lawsuit challenging the South Carolina election rules that prevent a candidate seeking the nomination of more than one political party from appearing on the general election ballot if that candidate wins one party's nomination but loses another's. South Carolina is one of only four states that permits fusion voting, which allows multiple political parties to nominate the same candidate, but also has a so-called "sore loser" statute disqualifying candidates who have been selected by one party but rejected by another. The ACLU brought this legal challenge on behalf of the state Green Party, a disqualified candidate for the state House of Representatives and a South Carolina voter. A judge rejected our request for an injunction, but the case is set to go to trial next year.
- MONTANA – Lawsuit challenging Montana's scheme for getting independent and minor-party candidates on the ballot. The lawsuit challenged the state's burdensome system for non-major party candidates seeking to run for office and asked the court to prohibit state officials from enforcing it in this year's elections. Disappointingly, a federal judge denied our request to have a minor party candidate placed on the November ballot. We are considering our legal options.
- OHIO – Lawsuit asking Ohio to issue a temporary restraining order that would prohibit a county board of elections from blocking same-day registration and voting. According to state law, a voter must be registered to vote 30 days before the date of the election, and absentee balloting begins 35 days before the election. The Board of Elections in Madison County stated it will only provide absentee ballots to voters who have been registered more than 30 days before the date they requested an absentee ballot, rather than 30 days before Election Day. In an overwhelming victory, two different Ohio courts ruled in September that counties cannot deny absentee ballots to newly registered voters.
- GEORGIA - Lawsuit challenging Georgia's system of verifying voters' identities and citizenship that illegally purges voters from the rolls. The lawsuit charges the state with violating the Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act by purging thousands of voters less than 90 days before the election and relying on a flawed database to question the citizenship of registered voters. This case is currently pending.
- MICHIGAN - Lawsuit challenging two statewide voter purge programs that could potentially disfranchise hundreds of thousands of Michigan voters in advance of the November election. In October, a federal judge found both programs illegal.
- OHIO – Lawsuit against state and local election officials in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, over their change from voting technology that provides voters with notice of ballot errors that will prevent their ballot from being accurately tabulated to voting technology that does not provide such notice. The motion was granted by the court in April and in July, the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections and the Board of County Commissioners selected a system that will provide notice of ballot errors for the November presidential election.
VOTING RIGHTS ACT
- TEXAS – Fought challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act by a small utility district in Austin, Texas that filed a lawsuit in 2006, just days after President Bush extended the VRA for 25 years. The Section 5 provision requires that any voting changes proposed by certain jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting be submitted to the Department of Justice or a federal court for approval, known as preclearance. The utility district sought to end its responsibility for having its voting changes reviewed but more significantly to have this important provision declared unconstitutional. This case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
- GEORGIA – Lawsuit challenging Georgia's system of verifying voters' identities and citizenship that illegally purges voters from the rolls. The lawsuit charges the state with violating the Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act by purging thousands of voters less than 90 days before the election and relying on a flawed database to question the citizenship of registered voters. This case is currently pending.