Changes to the Voting Rights Act in 2013 are now showing their effects and having a significant impact in disenfranchising minorities from this year’s election process.
The presidential primary in Arizona last week where minority voters were required to wait as long as five hours to cast their votes brought the issue into focus, with editorial boards across the country placing the blame squarely on Republicans.
The 2016 presidential election will be the first since the U.S. Supreme Court revised a crucial section of the 1964 Voting Rights Act, allowing 16 states to change their election laws without advance federal approval. Prior to Section 5 of the VRA being revised in 2013, jurisdictions with a long history of discrimination had to submit their voting changes for approval. Arizona was added to the “covered jurisdictions” in the VRA in 1975 for discriminating against Latino and Native American voters.
“There’s a reason why Arizona was subject to regulations on the Voting Rights Act; it’s because of the history of discrimination in the state,” said Pratt Norton Wiley, the Democratic National Committee’s national director of voter expansion. “The Republican Party wants us to believe that the long lines and voter confusion in Arizona were an anomaly, rather than a result of their partisan efforts to undercut the electoral process.”
So, without needing federal approval, Arizona changed the number of polling locations available to voters significantly reducing the number of locations where the state’s minority voters were concentrated.
According to The Arizona Republic, most of the counties it surveyed in the state had enough polling places to average 2,500 or fewer eligible voters per polling site.Maricopa County in which minorities make up 40 percent of the population had one site for every 21,000 voters.
Maricopa County, which has 1.25 million eligible voters, only had 60 open polling places, while counties like Pima County with 300,000 eligible voters had 130 polling places, more than double that of Maricopa County. All the other counties also had a reasonable proportion of polling places to population: Apache County had 41 polling locations for 35,000 eligible voters, and Navajo County had 38 polling locations for 42,000 eligible voters.
During the last presidential election, Maricopa County had 200 polling places, meaning the number of polling places was cut by 70 percent, and cut by 85 percent from the 2008 election.
As a result, not only were voters forced to wait in long lines for as long as a five hours in many cases, but many voters left without casting a ballot.
“It is no coincidence many poor and predominantly Latino areas didn’t get a polling place,” wrote Arizona Republic columnist Elvia Diaz.
The DNC echoed that sentiment, saying the long wait times “weren’t an accident the blame lies in the GOP’s deliberate attempt to restrict access to the ballot box.”
“We’ve seen Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country pass a spate of restrictive voting laws since a key provision of the Voting Rights Act was invalidated by the Supreme Court nearly three years ago,” Wiley said. “Republicans in Congress have so far shown no interest in restoring these critical voting protections.”
Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, a Democrat, sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch the day after the primary asking the Justice Department to open an investigation into the election process. In his letter, Stanton said the issue was not simply the number of polling places but where they were located in areas “far more favorable in predominantly Anglo communities.”
In an interview with the Washington Post, Stanton said the long lines particularly hurt the least advantaged, who usually have less flexibility in their schedules than more affluent people do. “If you’re a single mother with two kids, you’re not going to wait for hours, you’re going to leave that line,” he said, adding “tens of thousands of people were deprived of the right to vote.”