The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Almost 16 million voters were removed from the rolls. We should be alarmed.

Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) during a congressional hearing earlier this year. Raskin said this week, “The right to vote is still shaky in our country.” (J. Lawler Duggan for The Washington Post)

Nearly two dozen Democrats are seeking votes for president. Apparently, there’s no such thing as too many.

But some officials think there are too many voters.

The number of names purged from voting rolls in recent years has surged, blocking the ballot box for millions of Americans.

That and the Justice Department’s approach to enforcing what remains of the Voting Rights Act were examined at a recent congressional hearing on “Protecting the Right to Vote: Best and Worst Practices.”

To overcome the worst practices, Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties, advocates a constitutional amendment that explicitly guarantees the right to vote.

Among the worst practices are those that rob Americans of the franchise because of errors, overly aggressive attempts to clean voting lists and voting roll manipulation designed to influence elections and political power.

Consider this data from Myrna Pérez of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice: “Between 2014 and 2016, states removed almost 16 million voters from the rolls. That’s almost 4 million more than between 2006 and 2008.” And it should be obvious that that is a rate that outstrips the growth rate of total registered voters and the growth rate of total population.”

She acknowledged the responsibility of election administrators to keep voting rolls clear of the dead and geographically departed. But she said “what is especially concerning to the Brennan Center” is jurisdictions now excluded from “federal pre-clearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act had purge rates that were significantly higher” than other jurisdictions, leaving 2 million fewer citizens eligible to vote.

Section 5 of the 1965 law was stripped by the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision. Pre-clearance required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to get Justice Department permission before making changes to voting procedures.

“So, six years after that decision, hundreds of polling places have been closed across the land,” Raskin said. “Early voting has been cut back sharply in a number of states. And strict voter ID laws have gone into effect in many jurisdictions. Virtually all of these restrictions have been in Republican states.”

The 2016 presidential election was the first following the Shelby decision. Before that vote, “jurisdictions closed polling places on a massive scale,” said Leigh Chapman, voting rights program director at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. A report by the organization, she said, “identified 868 polling places that were closed between 2012 and 2016.” She listed states, including Georgia, as areas where “polling place reductions have continued unabated.”

Rep. Jody B. Hice, a Georgia Republican, objected. “I am proud that the (2018) turnout by minorities increased dramatically compared with 2014,” he said. “This does not sound like a voter suppression campaign in Georgia because a voter suppression campaign did not occur.”

Despite the purges, Kaylan Phillips, litigation counsel with the conservative Public Interest Legal Foundation, said “it has never been easier to register to vote than it is today.” She mentioned opportunities to register, such as at motor vehicle offices and long-standing, private voter registration drives.

Although Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has been overturned, Section 2 remains. It prohibits voting procedures that discriminate by race.

But Democrats are not happy with enforcement by Trump’s Justice Department. “We have learned that the Civil Rights Division has filed exactly zero lawsuits to prevent the voting discrimination based on Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act,” said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D). “You would think that there was no more voting discrimination.”

A department spokeswoman who did not want to be named defended the department, saying its “level of Section 2 activity since President Trump took office is completely in line with its level of Section 2 activity during the eight years immediately prior to his taking office. From 2009 through 2013, the Department filed one case under Section 2.”

Vanita Gupta ran the Civil Rights Division under former president Barack Obama and is now the Leadership Conference’s president and chief executive. She cited, by email, the “years-long Section 2 statewide challenges to discriminatory laws passed in North Carolina and Texas in the aftermath of Shelby” under Obama and said “the Trump administration’s track record on voting rights has been abysmal.”

To combat practices that discourage or deny voting, Raskin supports a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote. One is needed, he said during an interview, despite a “rag-tag sequence of anti-discrimination amendments” to expand voting rights beyond the propertied white men who originally lorded over everyone else. The amendments covered black people and women, allowed the people to elect senators instead of state legislatures, permitted District citizens to vote for president, abolished poll taxes and lowered the voting age to 18. Yet“It’s ridiculous that we are still seeing voter purges and strategies of voter suppression and disenfranchisement in 2019,” he said. “It just makes no sense that we see continuous backsliding in people’s voting rights in different parts of the country.”

The December 2000 Supreme Court decision allowing George W. Bush to become president emphasizes the need for a constitutional amendment in his view because the ruling said “the individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the president of the United States.”

That decision and the many efforts to restrict voting leads Raskin to conclude: “The right to vote is still shaky in our country.”