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Susan Millinger: Voting rights challenged in two cases

The League of Women Voters, which turned 93 on Valentine’s Day, has been working since 1920 to protect the constitutional right to vote. A new concern is two cases now before the Supreme Court, one challenging the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the other the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. Shelby County [Alabama] v Holder questions the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This, the Act’s main enforcement mechanism, requires preclearance for any change in voting qualifications and procedures in those states or counties identified as having a history of discriminatory voting practices.

Even though much progress has been made in ending such discrimination, it still exists. Thus in 2006, under George W. Bush, Congress extended the Act for another 25 years.

The 2012 election saw numerous attempts to limit voting, including requirements that voters present proof of citizenship, shortening of early voting time periods, repeal of Election Day registration laws and making it more difficult for third-party organizations to register voters. A number of states now require that voters present government-issued photo IDs. Indeed, here in Massachusetts, three state representative districts in the Southeast, the 1st, 4th and 6th Bristol districts, introduced resolutions in 2012 supporting legislation requiring voters to show a photo ID before voting. Many of these requirements have the effect of making it harder for minorities to vote.

Arizona’s additional requirement of proof of citizenship from those applying to register by mail is the reason for the challenge to the National Voter Registration Act, which created a uniform national application form. Arizona v. ITCA, Inc. (Inter Tribal Council of Arizona) asks whether the NVRA can keep a state from restricting the voter registration process. Elisabeth MacNamara, national president of the League of Women Voters, has commented: “The Court is currently considering two of the most significant voting rights laws in the modern era. The decisions in either or both of these cases could be game-changers when it comes to protections for the right of every citizen to vote and the work of the League and citizen groups like us to expand participation and the electorate.” As part of its activity to expand voting participation, the Amherst League of Women Voters supports current attempts in the Massachusetts Legislature to reform voting laws, making it easier for citizens to register and cast their ballots.

Locally, the younger Amherst League (only 74 years old this month!) works in a number of ways to protect the right to vote and to provide information to help voters become more knowledgeable. The Amherst League holds voter registration drives, sponsors a Candidates’ Night, produces an annual election guide, published in the Amherst Bulletin and “They Represent You,” a directory of local elected officials and major committees. In addition, league members aid the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee in planning the two annual warrant review meetings.

The Amherst League’s concern for voting rights has led naturally to study of the impact on our democratic process of the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v the Federal Election Commission, in which the court ruled that limiting corporate expenditures on political causes was an infringement of the right to free speech. The program “Democracy in the Balance: Money, Speech and Power,” developed by local leagues, is available for presentation to interested organizations. It offers an historical overview of how campaign financing has changed over time, and an overview of the impact of unlimited contributions and expenditures on political campaigns as a consequence of the Citizens United decision.

For information about this 20-minute program, or other league activities, see the Amherst League of Women Voters’ website Given the league’s history and the current political atmosphere, expect on-going developments in these areas. Consider joining the league (open to men and women of any political persuasion) to educate yourself and to take action.

Susan Millinger is a member of the Amherst League of Women Voters.herst.

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