As the United States embarks on its first presidential election in 50 years without a fully operable Voting Rights Act (VRA), a coalition of close to 90 voting and civil rights groups is calling on state election officials to ensure that no one is disenfranchised at the ballot box on November 8.
"As you know, the VRA protected the voting rights of racial and ethnic minorities in several states and local jurisdictions where they had been historically discriminated against in voting," reads the letter (pdf) sent Wednesday from groups including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Friends of the Earth-U.S., and the League of Women Voters.
But those protections were hobbled in 2013 by the U.S. Supreme Court's "devastating decision" in Shelby County v. Holder, the letter notes. "Following Shelby, numerous states have passed voting laws, which several federal courts agree have a disparate impact on people of color and language minorities." Read Common Dreams' coverage of the fallout here.
"Since Congress has failed to pass a bill to restore the VRA...we are extremely concerned that there will be widespread voter discrimination in the upcoming presidential election," the groups continue.
What's more, they point to recent news that, as a result of Shelby, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is scaling back its deployment of election observers during this year's presidential election. "The potentially detrimental effect of the absence of this critical voter protection tool cannot be overstated," the letter reads.
"State election officials must address these unprecedented threats head on."
—Wade Henderson, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
On top of all this, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has been stoking fears of a "rigged election" on the campaign trail, calling on supporters to monitor polling places on Election Day and going as far as to recruit "Trump Election Observers" through his campaign website.
Civil rights groups have expressed alarm over Trump's call, with Kristen Clarke of the nonprofit Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law recently warning: "Poll watchers left unchecked may unfairly target minority voters."
Meanwhile, the legal back-and-forth over restrictive voting laws in the wake of Shelby has led to misunderstandings—intentional and not—on the part of both voters and election officials. A Pew Research Center survey released earlier this week showed that many Americans remain confused about their state's voter ID laws; while a New York Times story on Tuesday suggested that "a host of factors—foot-dragging by states, confusion among voters, the inability of judges to completely roll back bias—are blunting the effect of court rulings against the laws."
The gutting of the VRA, a patchwork of voting laws, and "the most racially bigoted presidential campaign in generations has created a perfect storm for voter intimidation and voter discrimination," said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, on Wednesday.
"State election officials must address these unprecedented threats head on," he added, "by creating and publicizing clear plans to prevent intimidation and discrimination, and to make it unequivocally clear to the voters they serve that the elections they oversee will be safe, fair, and free from intimidation, violence, and discrimination."