Bloggers note: A week or so I attended a voting rights hearing in Denver sponsored by the National Commissioin on Voting Rights and organized in the wake of the 2013 SCOTUS decision Shelby v Holder, which struck down important parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Along with Dr. Lonna Atkeson, of UNM, I was a guest commissioner tasked with taking testimony from both the New Mexican and Colorado voting rights advocates and county clerks officials. What I heard was pretty shocking. Here's a news release the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, which actually organized the event, put out:
On March 7th at a National Commission on Voting Rights (NCVR) public hearing organized by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and partners including the Colorado Lawyers Committee, voting rights advocates and election administrators gathered at the Sturm College of Law, University of Denver to share their experiences of both initiatives to improve elections in Colorado and New Mexico as well as ongoing challenges.
Nadine Padilla, Political Director of Native American Voters Alliance spoke of the challenges Native American voters face in rural New Mexico often driving almost 2 hours to the nearest polling sites located in hostile communities.
“…Another common practice is tow trucks going into polling locations in Native communities looking for license plates numbers of people who are behind on their car or truck payments and word will get around pretty quickly and that will discourage voters from going to the polls,” said Nadine Padilla who works with Native American voters in rural New Mexico. “In the last elections in 2012 there were reports of tires being slashed of everyone that was going to vote.”
Both Padilla and Jennifer Weddle, chair of the Colorado Indian Bar Association, spoke of Native American voters being intimidated at the polls or given wrong information about polling locations. Challenges facing Native American voters were among a diverse range of voting rights and election administration issues addressed by expert witness panels representing civic engagement groups, government watchdogs, election administrators and advocates from Hispanic and Native American communities.
Guest Commissioners Dr. Lonna Atkeson of the University of New Mexico; former New Mexico State Senator Dede Feldman; Colorado, Montana and Wyoming NAACP State Conference President Rosemary Harris Lytle; and John Zakhem of Zakhem Laww LLC heard about the challenges of providing access in Colorado and New Mexico to Native American, Hispanic and persons with disabilities as well as election administration initiatives in both states to improve elections. Other topics included excessively long lines at polling sites in minority communities, providing language access to Hispanic voters, perspectives from county and state election administrators on implementing voting laws and innovative technology programs to increase access and voter participation. Witnesses also testified about rural communities still lacking the resources to implement these technology programs because those communities have limited broadband access and cell phone service.
The Denver event was the ninth in a series of nationwide hearings scheduled throughout the spring to collect testimony about voting discrimination and election administration challenges and successes. Over the past few years, many states have enacted restrictive voting laws, others continue to grapple with recurring election administration challenges and a growing number have proposed electoral reform to expand access. In June of 2013, the United States Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder stripped away a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that protected many communities against voting discrimination. The goal of the NCVR is to document both what continues to keep voters from the ballot box as well as efforts to expand opportunities to vote, in two reports, which will be released in 2014.
NCVR hearings will address a range of topics, including: voting changes, voter registration, election administration (e.g., provisional ballots, polling location issues, and method of elections), voting discrimination, student voting issues, and access to the ballot for individuals with disabilities, language minority voters, and communities of color. Upcoming hearings include:
North Carolina- March 28, Boston Regional (MA, ME, NH, RI & VT)-March 31, Alabama- April 1 and Texas- April 5
For more information about the National Commission on Voting Rights, please visit ncvr.lawyerscommittee.org.
Quotes from Colorado-New Mexico Guest Commissioners:
Dr. Lonna Atkeson, Professor and Director, Center for the Study of Voting, Elections, and Democracy, University of New Mexico
“Witnesses testified on the successes and failures of election reform efforts in Colorado and New Mexico and provided an important backdrop to the voting rights agenda as we prepare for the 2014 midterm elections.”
Dede Feldman, Former New Mexico State Senator
“Testimony from Native Americans and Hispanic groups at the National Commission on Voting Rights hearing in Denver was eye-opening. There are still lots of reasons to worry about whether Hispanic language minority voters in New Mexico are being forced to wait in long lines and to vote under the eyes of hostile authorities in Southern New Mexico. Witnesses testified, too, about misinformation and intimidation of Native Americans. But the discouraging stories were counterbalanced with reasons to hope. County and state election officials in Colorado and New Mexico are harnessing technology to expand-- not contract -- access for voters.”
Rosemary Harris Lytle, President, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming NAACP State Conference"
“The NAACP State Conference believes Americans love democracy, though it’s sometimes hard to tell these days with the egregious attacks we see on voting rights. In the end, what it means is that it might be harder for too many Coloradans -- some people of color, people economically-challenged, people with disabilities, and young and not-so young -- to exercise the jewel of our democracy, their right to vote. These hearings, however, offered documented data, case studies, best practices, and hope that we are moving closer in our states, at a steady clip, toward full civic participation for every person and for the fullest vision of voting rights possible."
John S. Zakhem, President, Zakhem Law LLC
“The National Commission on Voting Rights hearing provided outstanding demonstration of the innovative, positive steps being taken by many Colorado and New Mexico election officials to enhance voter participation. This strong leadership, in combination with the guidance of the Colorado Lawyers Committee Elections Task Force, will continue to improve voter experience and protection, so long as we all remain vigilant in safe-guarding this basic human right.”
Colorado Lawyers Committee; Colorado Common Cause; Common Cause New Mexico; Elections Task Force of the Colorado Lawyers Committee; Sturm College of Law, University of Denver; The Legal Center for People with Disabilities and Older People; and The Sweetser Law Firm, P.C.