Voting rights

3/31/2016, 7:57 p.m.

When voters across the nation head to the polls in November to cast ballots, it will be the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protection of the federal Voting Rights Act.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to strike down critical provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required 16 mostly Southern states — including Virginia — to get pre-clearance from the U.S. Justice Department before making any changes affecting voting because of their history of discrimination against African-Americans and other minorities.

Within days and months of the high court’s decision, Texas and Mississippi enacted more restrictive voter ID laws. North Carolina followed suit, cutting back its early voting and same-day registration that gave residents easier and broader access to voting.

Other states, including Virginia, put in tougher voting requirements.

In recent presidential primary elections, voters in many states faced long lines or being turned away at the polls because of these new, stiffer restrictions.

For example, in Maricopa County, Ariz., which includes Phoenix and Scottsdale and where minorities are 40 percent of the voting population, people had to wait in line for hours to cast ballots because county officials had reduced the number of polling places from 200 in 2012 to 60 in the March primary, allegedly because of a lack of money.

Oddly, in affluent Scottsdale, voters waited at most 30 minutes to vote. But in downtown Phoenix, which has a more diverse population, voters waited up to five hours to cast their ballots.

The Justice Department previously had blocked Maricopa County from reducing the number of polling places under the Voting Rights Act pre-clearance provision. Without the Justice Department oversight, we believe cuts in polling places were used to discourage people of color from voting.

Yes, it costs to run polling places, furnish voting machines and hire poll workers. But certainly, as Richmond and places across the country grapple with tightened budgets, we cannot balance our constitutional right to vote against a budget line item for snow removal. Access to voting is much too important, and we must remain vigilant that current budget proposals in Richmond and throughout the local area do not curb our access to the ballot box.

Just as President Obama’s election caused some people to falsely believe we are living in a “post-racial” society and have no need for the Justice Department to police states for discriminatory attempts to curb voting, the rise of reactionary factions such as the Tea Party and Trump supporters should awaken us and move us to prevent conservative elements from obstructing the votes of people of color. Conservatives in Shelby County, Ala., mounted the court challenge that resulted in the elimination of the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act.

In Virginia, free and fair access to the polls has been impacted by the 2014 mandate requiring voters to show photo identification in order to vote. The list of acceptable IDs is not as draconian in Virginia as in Texas, where handgun permits are acceptable, but not student IDs.

We also are heartened that the Virginia General Assembly required the state Department of Elections to make free photo ID cards available to voters through every general registrar’s office in the commonwealth. Still, there are more than 48,000 inactive voters in Richmond, Henrico, Hanover and Chesterfield alone. How many of those people who are registered to vote have not cast ballots because of ID problems or other obstacles?

Vestiges of discrimination are real. And until Congress restores the Justice Department pre-clearance requirement for Virginia and other states, it is up to us to ensure that the important constitutional right of all people to vote is not abridged, obstructed or played with.

November’s elections for president — as well as for congressional representatives, Richmond’s next mayor, City Council representatives and School Board members — are too important.