Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Four of the states with the most diverse electorates also have some of the worst protections in place for voters of color.
Super Tuesday: The political equivalent of the opening day of March Madness. Candidates are scrambling around a dozen states looking to win as many delegates as possible to advance to the final general election. And while demography and ideology will both play huge roles in determining the victors, Tuesday’s elections will also be instrumental in forecasting the future of voting rights and ballot access, particularly for people of color.
There are three major clouds hanging over at least a third of the Super Tuesday states: Recent changes to voter ID laws, the disenfranchisement of those who’ve been convicted of felonies in the past, and racial gerrymandering. Each of these problems exists in force across a broad swath of Southern states among the Super Tuesday run. Any certainties about how black or Latino voters will vote this year are critically compromised by the lack of resolution around these new barriers to casting ballots. But Tuesday’s outcomes will offer some clarity about the real burden of these changes for voters of color, especially first-time voters.
Four Southern states in particular—Alabama, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia—will be sending their black and Latino voters into somewhat of a whirlwind when they try to cast their ballots. Each of these states is facing recent or pending court decisions around voter ID, felony disenfranchisement, and gerrymandering. Voters in these states are expected to rough it through many doubts as they stand in line for the polls: Do they need ID to vote? What kind? Has a past crime disqualified them from voting or not? Are they even voting from the correct legislative or congressional district?
Given the large shares of black and brown voters in these states, they will have a tremendous sway over which presidential candidates walk away with the most delegates. However, that isn’t all that’s in play: These voters will also influence the outcomes of hundreds of down-ticket, congressional, legislative, gubernatorial, mayoral, and city council primary races, as well. But their influence will only be as potent as their ability to actually cast their ballots.
Here’s what black and brown voters are up against on Super Tuesday in determining that:
Alabama: There’s been a lot of noise out of this state since it decided last year to close several dozen DMV offices around the state, mostly in predominantly black neighborhoods. This move startled the civil rights community because Alabama officially began requiring photo ID to vote in 2014, and DMV offices are the principal places for obtaining voter-eligible identification. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund helped file a lawsuit against the state last December challenging the law, which could make voting complicated for roughly 280,000 residents who lack proper ID. While the U.S. Attorney for the state is also now investigating it, a federal judge has refused to block the law for the primaries.
Meanwhile, Alabama is one of roughly a dozen states that carries harsh voting penalties for those who’ve been convicted of felony crimes in the past. Over 262,000 people across the state are disenfranchised in this manner, over half of whom are African Americans, according to The Sentencing Project. On top of that, some Alabama voters might be confused about what district they’re voting from. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last March that Republicans engaged in unconstitutional racial gerrymandering when they drew new district maps in 2012. Black lawmakers are now clamoring for new maps that don’t lump black voters into a few districts, but that matter is still up in the air for many voters.
Hillary Clinton has come down especially hard on Alabama’s recent election changes, referring to them as a “blast from the Jim Crow past.” Bernie Sanders cold called the state “cowards” for its voter ID law. He should be fired up about this given that voter turnout hasn’t been going his way, especially among black voters, and experts say that voter ID laws dampen minority turnout.
Georgia: This state has one of the oldest photo voter ID requirements in the nation. Passed in 2006, it is among just a handful of such laws that have actually been tested in presidential elections. It was in place during President Barack Obama’s run to become the first African American elected to the White House, which helped boost black turnout immensely. For this reason, Georgia is not yet a great test of whether voter ID laws suppress minority votes. This year’s elections, however, will show whether black voters will come out in numbers as large as they did in 2008 and 2012 without an African American at the top of the ballot—and with voter ID restrictions in place.
There’s another voter ID issue, however, that also deserves attention: The state’s changes to federal voter registration forms that now require proof of the applicant’s citizenship for new voters. This mostly affects Latino voters, and the strongest proponents for such “proof of citizenship” laws have been nativist politicians bent on decimating U.S. immigration policies. Civil rights groups tried to block the “proof of citizenship” changes from going into effect for this primary in Georgia, but a federal judge has allowed them to survive. Michael Keats, the attorney representing those groups, told the judge that such changes so close to the primary election will cause confusion and a “chilling effect” among many voters.
The disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions also looms over this state’s primary. Georgia bans people convicted of felonies from voting even if they’re out of prison and on probation and parole. This means that more than 275,000 voters are disenfranchised there this Super Tuesday, almost 160,000 of whom are African Americans, according to The Sentencing Project.
Texas: This Washington Post headline from a February 29 story says it all: “More than half a million registered Texans don’t have the right ID to vote on Super Tuesday.”
Texas has been duking it out with the U.S. Justice Department and federal courts ever since it passed a 2011 voter ID law that’s considered the toughest in the nation. Federal court judges and SCOTUS justices alike have ruled over the past two years that the voter ID law would discriminate against black and Latino voters. Elections expert Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions testified in one critical federal trial that 11.4 percent of Latinos and 8.4 percent of African Americans don’t have ID in Texas, compared to just 4.7 percent of white voters. Despite this, the attorney general is insisting that voters show ID in today’s elections and all future ones.
And then there’s the state’s ongoing redistricting battles, which are as much of a mess as its voter ID fights. A federal judge ruled in 2014 that state lawmakers intentionally set out to discriminate against black and Latino voters when it greenlighted new maps in 2011. The state’s maps are also at the center of a major SCOTUS review, Evenwel v. Abbott, which will affect how redistricting is done across the nation. The outcome will determine whether districts should be drawn with all people living in them in mind, or just those who are eligible to vote.
Texas has been working to dismantle voting-rights protections for people of color for decades, and has historically been the most dogged of all the states in resisting change. For all of these reasons, people of color in this state will have a much harder time at the polls than white voters.
Virginia: Perhaps only North Carolina can rival Virginia when it comes to the level of legal disarray that voters of color will have to deal with this election season. A voter ID law that passed in 2011 and was then updated to an even harsher version in 2014 is currently awaiting a federal judge’s ruling over its legality. At stake in Virginia are close to 197,000 registered voters who did not have ID for the 2014 midterm elections. The state’s elections department has issued a little more than 4,000 voter identification cards since then. Meanwhile, there have been no cases of voter impersonation fraud—the thing voter ID is supposed to combat— in at least the past 20 years, Virginia’s elections commissioner Edgardo Cortés testified in the trial last week.
The state is also tied up in litigation over districting maps Republicans created in 2012, where they unconstitutionally packed too many African Americans into a congressional district, as a federal court ruled last month. That court forced the state to create new maps, which places the city of Richmond in an entirely new district. Republican lawmakers have contested this ruling and have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to pause the ruling, at least until after this year’s elections, a request that the Scalia-less justices have partially denied.
Not to be outdone by its Southern Super Tuesday peers, Virginia also holds the distinction of having one of the strictest felony disenfranchisement laws in the nation. Gov. Terry McAuliffe has relaxed some of those restrictions, as did his predecessor Bob McDonnell. But there still are close to 243,000 African Americans— 20.4 percent of the state’s black population— who are prohibited from voting due to felonies, according to The Sentencing Project.
There are close to 700,000 African Americans who likely won’t be able to vote due to felony convictions in these four states alone. Add in the numbers from other Super Tuesday states, and that pushes the disenfranchised black vote to around 900,000 using Sentencing Project figures. Voter ID laws only multiply the effect, as does gerrymandering—and I haven’t even touched on prison gerrymandering. The Pew Research Center says that this year’s electorate is the most diverse ever, but such observations should be tempered by the fact that disenfranchisement is still a major feature of U.S. elections.