Right to left, Jean Murphy of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and Dorrie Lloyd-Still and Mary Morris register voters at the Library before a panel discussion of voting rights. The deadline to vote in the March 18 election is Feb. 18.                   RoundTable photo

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A panel discussion on voting rights sponsored by Delta Sigma Theta sorority ENSA, the League of Women Voters of Evanston, the Evanston chapter of the NAACP and the YWCA Evanston North Shore drew more than 60 people to the Main Library on Jan. 11.

“There are many efforts to suppress voting rights,” said Evonda Thomas-Smith, director of the City’s Health Department and a member of the Delta sorority. “More states are requiring voters to show state identification cards.  These and other restrictions impact the elderly, the young, people of color and low-income people,” because they may not have such IDs and it can be costly or time-consuming, or both, to obtain one.

“People say, ‘You can’t fly without an ID,’” said Ms. Thomas-Smith, “but the difference is that voting is a right. Flying is something you choose to do.”

The Shelby County Decision

The Voting Rights Act, passed by Congress in 1965 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, prohibited voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race and color and, as amended in the 1970s, on the basis of membership in a language-minority group.

Section 4 of the VRA mandated, among other things, that certain jurisdictions with a history or discrimination obtain approval from the Department of Justice before implementing any changes that could affect voting rights, said Ruth Greenwood, an attorney with Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Before 1965, many states, particularly in the South, burdened minority voters – for the most part, African Americans – with unfair hurdles to voting: such as poll taxes or literacy tests, as examples. Poll tests could contain unanswerable questions, said Ms. Greenwood, such as “How many bubbles in a bar of soap?”

The implementation of the Voting Rights Act resulted in the registration of more minority voters and the elections of more minority representatives, said Ms. Greenwood.

The  2013 U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder set aside Section 4.

Some States Limit Access

In the past eight years, said Ms. Greenwood, several states have enacted legislation that puts a burden on certain groups of voters – the old, the young, persons of color and those with low-incomes.

Indiana and Texas require a photo ID; Georgia and Florida restrict both the number of days allotted for early voting and the hours during which early voting is conducted; Kansas and Arizona require proof of citizenship to be presented at the polls; Florida has put restrictions on voter-registration drives; and Wisconsin has restricted absentee voting.

Legal strategies to combat these laws include federal Constitutional challenges, using the 14th or the 24th amendment, another section of the VRA, state constitutional claims and ballot initiatives, Ms. Greenwood said.

The ability to register to vote on Election Day, eliminated in Maine, was recently restored. Further, on Jan. 17, the U.S. Election Commission found that the proof-of-citizenship requirements of Kansas and Arizona were likely to disenfranchise eligible voters. At least one state, however,  has vowed to appeal that finding.

Help at the Polls

Ami Gandhi, executive director of the South Asian American Policy and Research Institute, said much of her agency’s work in helping with access to the polls involves language barriers. The 1975 amendment to the VRA prohibits discrimination against “language minorities.” It was crafted “for people who are here legally but may not be able to navigate a ballot. … Section 203 of the VRA provides that every citizen has the right to vote, regardless of English proficiency,” Ms. Gandhi said.

When the number of limited-English-proficient (LEP) citizens reaches a certain level, then the government must provide assistance at the polls in the form of translation of election materials and, at the polls, oral assistance to voters.

“Citizens all over the country have the right to bring a friend or family member [to the polls] to help them vote,” she said, but the “assistance” does not include influencing or trying to influence the vote.

Election judges who may not be familiar with the VRA sometimes do not help right away or do something to make the voter feel uncomfortable, and the citizen may leave without voting, said Ms. Gandhi.

Low Voter Turnout

Local elections affect residents more than do state or national elections, said George Mitchell, president of the Evanston chapter of the NAACP.

“Has there been voter suppression in Evanston?” asked Mr. Mitchell. “The answer is ‘yes.’” He described Evanston’s redistricting process 10 years ago and said there was an effort to redraw ward lines to prevent the Second and Fifth wards from continuing to be “majority minority” – that is drawing the lines so that concentrations of minority voters would be spread across more than two wards. That effort did not prevail.

In Evanston, however, voter apathy seems to be a greater problem than voter access. There is low voter turnout, particularly in non-presidential-election years. Voting percentages in the two wards with the greatest proportion of minority voters or voting-age persons – the Second and Fifth Wards – have generally been even lower, said Ms. Thomas-Smith.

Mr. Mitchell pointed to the 2012 referendum question on whether to establish a school in the Fifth Ward. About 29 percent of the registered voters in the District – which includes part of Skokie – voted in that election.  He said the high turnout in the Sixth and Seventh wards, which are predominately white, trumped the low turnout in the Second and Fifth wards.

Data from that election shows that 555 persons in the section of the Fifth Ward in the area where the new school would have been established  – about 24 percent of the registered voters in that area. Of those, 424 voted in favor of the school, and 131 votied against it.

Farther north, in the Sixth and Seventh wards – where minority students would have been relocated from their schools and sent to the Fifth Ward school – there was a heavier turnout, with 1,185 persons voting in favor of the school and 2,204 voting against it.

“Registration is only part of the process,” said Mr. Mitchell. “Get [voters] out the door. Get them to the polls.”  He also said that early voting is important for those who work far from home and may not be in Evanston during the times the polls are open on Election Day. Another challenge he said, is to make young people on the cusp of being able to vote “interested in the process and participate in the process.”  

The March 18 Election

Eileen Heineman of the YWCA Evanston/North Shore ended the Jan. 11 forum with a challenge to the community: “Educate yourself; communicate with your peers and leverage your individual power.” The referendum concerning dissolution of the government of the Township of Evanston will be on the March 18 ballot, and it is important that voters understand what is at stake, she said. In addition, she said, residents should communicate their thoughts about candidates and about the referendum question and should let others know their stance on issues and candidates.

There will be a forum about the proposed dissolution of the Township  that would transfer its function to the municipal government at 10 a.m. on March 1 at the Civic Center.