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Voting rights violations are not confined to ‘red’ states

By: Perry Grossman Director, Voting Rights Project, Legal & Brandon J. Holmes Interim Field Co-Director, Field

New Yorkers might like to think that voting rights violations only happen in places like Texas, Florida or Georgia. But the truth is, voter suppression happens in “blue” and “red” states alike, including here in the Hudson Valley.

New York has a long history of practices that leave people unable to access the ballot. We’ve seen discrimination against voters based on their race, ethnicity and spoken language. New Yorkers regularly face barriers to voter registration and ballot access, racial gerrymandering and other forms of vote dilution, voter purges, the moving and closing of poll sites and limited access to language assistance. These practices disproportionately hurt voters of color, creating racial and ethnic inequities in one of our most fundamental rights.

The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act in the New York State Legislature would go a long way toward fixing these rampant issues. A quick look at recent history makes it clear just how necessary this legislation is.

Within the past 25 years, New York has been the site of at least 14 documented violations of federal voting rights laws. But this number is just the tip of the iceberg. New York has thousands of local government entities — counties, cities, towns, villages, school districts and special purpose districts. Many of these political subdivisions run their own elections without oversight by the state or county boards of elections.

Successfully suing any one of these thousands of entities for voting rights violations can take years and cost millions of dollars. This means there just aren’t enough resources available to go after every voting rights violation, even many egregious ones.

Hudson Valley voters face these types of voter suppression schemes, too. In the controversy-plagued Clarkstown school district, 44% of public school students are children of color and 25% of all eligible voters are people of color. But the entire seven-member school board is white. An NYCLU analysis showed there are less than half the number of polling places for school board elections than for general elections, and there are no polling places for school board elections in the neighborhood that is most densely populated with people of color.

The off-cycle school board elections are not held on the same day as any state or federal elections. On average, nearly nine in 10 eligible voters do not vote in Clarkstown school district elections, according to information released in response to a Freedom of Information Law request from the NYCLU.

The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a landmark achievement for civil rights that has expanded and protected access to the ballot across the country. But it is under attack by the Supreme Court and states across the country are quickly passing laws to dismantle it. In the face of this nationwide threat, and given the disenfranchisement taking place in New York, our state needs its own Voting Rights Act.

The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act would provide nation-leading protections against vote dilution and suppression. The bill increases language assistance, beefs up laws against voter intimidation, and enhances transparency into critical voting data.

The legislation also makes taking legal action against voter suppression and racial vote dilution easier and makes those challenges more likely to succeed. And it requires local boards of election to get pre-clearance from the state attorney general before making changes that could limit voter access.

This legislation would cement New York as one of the most pro-democracy states in the country and inspire other states to take action to make voting fair and equal. Voting is the foundation of democracy. It is the right we exercise to protect all others. State legislators must ensure that every New Yorker’s right to vote is protected and strengthened.

This piece was originally published in the Times Herald-Record

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