Why the 2014 election matters for voting rights

The outcome of next year's U.S. Senate elections could determine the fate of the Voting Rights Act. (Photo of the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol by Scrumshus via Wikipedia.)

Last month, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) sent a letter to the Department of Justice practically begging them to review her state's new voter ID law, which elections experts believe will insidiously impact voters of color, elders, college students and many women. Her appeal to the Attorney General comes as she vies for re-election in 2014, one of 33 Senators whose seats will be up for grabs.

Until this year, much of North Carolina was protected by the Voting Rights Act because of a history of voter discrimination. Under VRA's Section Five, 40 of the state's 100 counties were subject to preclearance, meaning officials there had to submit any proposed elections changes to the Justice Department or a federal court to determine if racial discrimination might result. Since the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the preclearance coverage formula this summer, the state is no longer subject to those federal reviews.

Then North Carolina's Republican-controlled General Assembly passed the Voter Information Verification Act, to Sen. Hagan's consternation.

What’s at stake for the VRA in 2014 is whether it can be improved upon, restored to its former glory, or whether it will be further eroded. Congress might fix the law before those elections -- maybe even as soon as this year. But without such a fix, the outcomes of those races could lead to a VRA that's in even worse shape than it is now.

While Section Five was dismantled, other parts are still intact. They include Section Two, which allows parties to sue if an elections policy is changed or a law is passed that disenfranchises people of color, and Section Three, which allows a jurisdiction to be "bailed-in" to preclearance if a judge determines that a pattern of discrimination has occurred over time.

But those provisions are only as strong as the Justice Department officials who enforce it.

That was a topic of discussion at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. last week, where a panel of civil rights and voting rights experts discussed the VRA's legacy and fate. Among those on the panel was University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor Tyson D. King-Meadows, author of the book "When the Letter Betrays the Spirit: Voting Rights Enforcement and African American Participation from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama." King-Meadows spelled out two key ways that more damage could come to what remains of the VRA.

One, it could be underfunded. Congress could vote to give DOJ less money, which means some of the department's attorneys would be let go, and fewer attorneys hired, and fewer resources available for the remaining employed attorneys to investigate voting rights claims and other civil rights issues.

Two, people hostile to the VRA's tenets could be appointed to roles in the Justice Department or federal courts.

"Let me give you a number: 684," said Kings-Meadows. "That's the number of non-competitive appointments in the DOJ alone."

Kings-Meadows said that meant an individual who thought contemptuously of the VRA could direct Justice staff to interpret the law in ways that could lead to further weakening of its powers, "or simply ignore meritorious complaints that come in."

As King-Meadows pointed out, this has already happened. Under President George W. Bush, the Justice Department was staffed with some attorneys who were reluctant to bring VRA suits, and even some who wanted to use it under dubious terms to protect white voters against alleged intimidation by blacks. Such was the case with J. Christian Adams, a former DOJ attorney who fought hard to bring a case against members of the New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia who allegedly scared a white voter away from a polling place. No wrongdoing was found in that case, including by Justice Department officials who Adams accused of not pushing the case as aggressively as those with black victims of voter intimidation.

Adams now blogs on conservative issues and works with organizations including True the Vote, a poll-watching group that has been accused of intimidating voters. Much of his blogging is about how to undermine the VRA.

But getting back to the 684 non-competitive appointments in the Justice Department, about a third of those need Senate confirmation, King-Meadows noted. That's why it's important to pay attention to the races of Hagan and the 32 other Senators up for re-election.

"2014 impacts what will happen in 2016, and so you can't disconnect what happens next year from what happens in future years," said King-Meadows.