By Nick BeJeaux
Almost half a century after Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, discrimination at the polls is still faced by disenfranchised minorities today, especially here in Louisiana.
With election day (Nov. 4) only days away, Louisiana Progress gathered a panel of four African American professors, lawmakers, and lawyers at LSU’s African American Culture Center to discuss how voter discrimination is committed, the effects of and changes to the VRA, and how potential victims can overcome discrimination should they face it on election day. The panelists were Chris Tyson, Associate Professor of Law at the LSU Law Center; Dr. Roland Mitchell, Associate Professor of Higher Education Administration at LSU; Alfreda Tillman Bester, General Counsel for NAACP Louisiana; and State Representative Patricia Haynes Smith, District 67.
“I am a child of the Civil Rights Movement. I grew up in Hattiesburg Mississippi in the 60s,” said Bester. “I remember from back then the tactics that were used to keep African Americans from exercising their rights, and I’m seeing some of the same things again today.”
Tyson, who is also running for the office of Secretary of State in 2015, discussed the 2013 case of Shelby County v. Holder, where the Supreme Court ruled two key parts of the VRA unconstitutional. According to Tyson, that opened the door for Discrimination to continue as it had before the VRA, albeit more clandestinely.
“If anything, there was talk about expanding the coverage of the VRA because there were new devices of discrimination and new populations that were being discriminated against and everyone understood the importance of maintaining the right to vote,” he said. “Then we came to Shelby County v. Holder.”
Shelby County in Alabama sought relief from the “preclearance” provision in section five of the VRA, which mandated that states with a history of “egregious voter discrimination” – so basically every state that existed before the 19th century – submit changes to their voting laws to the federal government for approval. This provision was not struck down, but section 4(b), which determines which states have a history of “egregious voter discrimination,” was.
“It’s important that you understand how these rights and protections are chipped away, and the rationale and the rhetoric used to undermine them,” said Tyson.
Tyson and the other panelists also discussed the controversy surrounding voter ID laws across the country and in Louisiana, which has had such laws on the books since 1993. In Louisiana, voters are required to present a valid photo ID at the polls and while many focus on the burden this places on minorities, it also weighs down other demographics.
“My mother is 100 years old and was delivered by a midwife; there are people across the country who are up in age that have never had a birth certificate,” said Smith. “One of the requirements of having a valid voter ID is having a birth certificate, so that rules out that person ever being able to vote.”
Also, different states have different standards for what counts as a valid photo ID. For example, in Texas, you can’t use a student or temporary ID to vote, but a gun registration ID card is considered valid. This, according to Tyson, is where insidious discrimination based on race becomes apparent.
“What we start to see is that certain forms of identification become more common in certain populations than others,” he said. “If the state does not want a certain population to vote, all they have to do is exempt certain kinds of IDs. Even if we’re for voter identity laws, there has to be some rational scheme for what kinds of IDs are acceptable, only there isn’t.”
Tyson and Bester added that the best defense against discrimination is knowing your rights as a citizen. Louisiana voters without ID can still cast their ballot if they fill out an Identification Affidavit form at their voting location with the help of a poll worker. Find out your voting location and ballot information at www.geauxvote.com.