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Core Civil Liberties Threatened in State Legislatures: Three Trends to Watch

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September 7, 2011

State legislatures are ground zero in the fight for civil liberties. Although they may not attract as much attention as debates in Congress or arguments in the Supreme Court, they are the source of unprecedented assaults on our most fundamental rights.

Three troubling trends of the 2011 state legislative session were:

  1. restrictions on accessing abortion;
  2. racial profiling bills targeting Latinos and immigrants; and
  3. measures suppressing the right to vote.

Did your state see a battle on one of these issues? Check out this map to learn more.

This year politicians waged the most serious and damaging attack on abortion access in decades (map). Politicians around the country have been doing their best to shut down Planned Parenthood health centers, and have been passing laws that take away insurance that covers abortion that millions of women and families already have. And that’s not all. From forcing a woman to listen to scripts and speeches intended to shame her out of her decision, to debating complete bans on any abortion, the state legislatures saw it all this year.

Make no mistake, these efforts are extreme. In many of the bills debated this year, politicians were committed to limiting a woman’s access to abortion care even in cases of rape and incest. But here’s the thing — women’s lives matter. Respect for women, respect for their decisions about their health and families, respect for their basic rights, matters. Ultimately, a woman’s decision about her pregnancy must be one that she makes with her doctor and her family. But politicians tried this year, and will try again next year, to take away a woman’s decision-making ability regardless of her circumstances.

Women were not the only targets of extreme legislation. Immigrants’ rights were also under attack during the 2011 state legislative session (map). Last year, Arizona enacted a notorious “show me your papers” law, inviting rampant racial profiling of Latinos, Asian Americans, and others presumed to be “foreign” because of the way they look or talk. Arizona’s law, known as S.B. 1070, set off a number of copycat attempts in states across the country. As the dust settles on state legislative sessions this year, five states have passed laws inspired by S.B. 1070.

These anti-immigrant laws threaten fundamental American values of fairness and equality for all people. The ACLU and other civil rights groups have already filed lawsuits challenging five of the laws, including Arizona’s, and intend to challenge the sixth one soon. So far, federal courts have blocked unconstitutional provisions in four states from taking effect, and we are confident that the other two laws will meet the same fate. Copycat measures that posed real threats were defeated this year in no less than 14 states.

The 2011 session also brought a wave of troubling voter suppression laws (map). Across the country, from Florida to Wisconsin, legislatures debated and enacted measures that will make it harder for Americans to cast votes and have their votes counted. Most common were bills requiring voters to show government-issued photo identification in order to cast a ballot. Though millions of Americans don’t have government-issued photo ID, and despite a lack of evidence that ID requirements will prevent fraud, voter ID laws were ultimately enacted in seven states this session, with three more still pending.

Other voter suppression efforts cut down on early voting, eliminated election day registration, and imposed requirements that people demonstrate proof of citizenship to register to vote. The history of our nation is characterized by a gradual expansion of voting rights; these discriminatory restrictions suppress the vote and turn back the clock.

The good news is that, in battleground states across the country, the ACLU was there every step of the way, working in state capitols to stand up for the civil liberties of all Americans. But the fight is far from over. Even if your state escaped without seeing a major battle in 2011, make sure to sign up for our email list so we can keep you posted on how you can protect civil liberties in your state and nationwide.

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