Sikhs Affected by Supreme Court Strike Down of Voter Rights Act

By Anju Kaur | July 02, 2013

Sikhs should join in support of all minorities in asking Congress to rewrite the parts of the Voter Rights Act that were struck down by the US Supreme Court last week to again protect their voting rights at the polls, a Sikh advocacy group said.

The landmark federal civil rights law was enacted in 1965 to prevent certain jurisdictions, with a history of racial discrimination in voting, from passing their own voting laws that would hinder the ability of minorities to vote. “The nature of the act was to protect minority voters and their right to vote,” said Amrita Singh, legal and legislative affairs associate with the Washington-based Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. According to the Department of Justice, the act established a coverage formula to identify those areas of the country with discriminatory practices, and to provide more stringent remedies. In 1965, discriminatory practices included "a test or device," such as being able to pass a literacy test, establish good moral character, or have another registered voter vouch for his or her qualifications. The act suspended these practices and required those jurisdictions to receive approval by the US District Court in Washington or by the attorney general for any changes to their voting laws. It also provided for the attorney general to appoint federal examiners to prepare and forward voter lists, and to send federal observers for elections. The formula initially covered Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, and parts of Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, and North Carolina. In 1970, when Congress reauthorized the act for another five years, it modified the formula, which resulted in encompassing parts of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Wyoming and California, including Yuba County, which has a large Sikh population. Sikhs and other Asians benefited greatly in the next revision of the act, which ensured language access to people with limited English-language skills. In 1975, the act was broadened to address voting discrimination against members of "language minority groups." These included American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaskan Natives and people of Spanish heritage. As a result, all of Alaska, Arizona, and Texas became covered jurisdictions, and also parts of Florida, Michigan and South Dakota. In 1982, Congress extended the act 25 years, but with no changes to the formula. It approved another 25-year extension in 2006. While some jurisdictions have successfully bailed out of the coverage list by showing good behavior for 10 years, many have remained for decades. 
Shelby County, Alabama filed a lawsuit in December 2011 against the federal government to invalidate the parts of the act that requires federal approval of changes in its voting laws. When the case went to the Supreme Court in February, 28 Asian American groups, including SALDEF, wrote to the Supreme Court to uphold the Voting Rights Act, particularly to ensure fully-translated ballots and language assistance at polling places in growing Asian American neighborhoods. They also noted that the act had “enabled Asian Americans and other minorities to object to discriminatory redistricting plans as recently as 2012, when the Texas state legislature's redistricting plan was denied preclearance for diminishing the opportunity of people of color to elect candidates of their choice,” the Jan. 31 letter says. 
 But the Supreme Court, on June 25, decided that the act violates the sovereignty of the covered states because they are treated differently from other states, and declared the coverage formula unconstitutional because it is based on old voting data and has not been updated since 1975. "Our country has changed," said Chief Justice John Roberts, in the majority opinion. "And while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions." Voicing the minority opinion from the bench, Justice Ruth Ginsburg noted that, in 2006, Congress held 21 hearings in 20 months and reviewed 15,000 pages of documentation before it nearly unanimously reauthorized the act and its coverage formula. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice, if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task to completion," Ginsburg said, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. That commitment has been "disserved by the majority's decision," she said. The summary dismissal of these key provisions of the Voter Rights Acts brought swift consternation from civil rights groups. “The act was meant to be a way that helps with voter issues beforehand,” Amrita Singh said. Protections were in place so voters did not encounter issues at the polls. States can now enact laws, such as voter identification cards, that affect these voters. And if they encounter a problem during elections, “they will have to deal with it after the fact,” with a lawsuit. “This ruling is a grave setback for voting rights and equality in the country that ignores both the historical and contemporary evidence of discrimination that minority voters face,” said the Maryland-based South Asian American Leading Tomorrow, in a June 27 statement. “South Asians will not be immune from (the) disappointing ruling, particularly given our community’s overall size and growth in jurisdictions previously covered under the… formula, including Arizona, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia.”


According to the New York-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, South Asian voters continue to encounter problems at the polls because of racial, ethnic, and limited English-language issues. In its exit poll of 3,721 Asian American voters during the 2010 midterm-elections, AALDEF received more than 200 complaints of voting problems. Asian American voters had difficulty reading the small text of the ballot, were mistreated by hostile, rude or poorly trained poll workers, and were denied access to translated voting materials. “The Voting Rights Act gives voters the right to be assisted by persons of their choice,” AALDEF said. “But in Philadelphia, an election judge prevented a Cambodian American voter from receiving assistance from her son. The voter was then made to wait for over an hour before she was allowed to vote. “(And), in Boston,
a South Asian American voter was racially profiled and improperly detained at her poll site by a police officer.” AALDEF surveys were conducted in New York, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. The five largest groups it surveyed were Chinese, 38 percent, Korean 28 percent, South Asian, 23 percent, Filipino, 4 percent, and Vietnamese, 3 percent. Approximately nine out of ten respondents were foreign-born, and nine percent were voting for the first time. AALDEF also found that “Language assistance and bilingual ballots are needed to preserve access to the vote.” Fifty-six percent of Asian Americans said they were limited in English proficiency. A number of poll sites were mandated to provide bilingual ballots and interpreters under the federal Voting Rights Act. In the 2010 midterm elections, twenty-five percent of voters surveyed used translated written materials and 34 percent needed interpreters to vote. Last week’s ruling was not the first time the Supreme Court decided in opposition of civil rights and minority views. The right to vote has been a long and difficult battle for minority communities. Perhaps the first battle for the right to vote for South Asians began with a court case in which a Sikh soldier fought for US citizenship. Bhagat Singh Thind, the first Sikh to fight in the US Army during World War I came home to find his country unwilling to give him citizenship. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which, in 1923, held that he was not white enough and could not be naturalized – and, therefore, could not vote. Bhagat Singh eventually became a citizen more than a decade later because of his veteran status. And, while blacks were native-born citizens, many states in the South passed voter laws that required them to jump through impossible hoops to cast a vote, and disenfranchised them in large numbers. The Voter Rights Act was the crown jewel of the Civil Rights Era. It was the most effective method to enforce the fundamental right of a citizen to vote. While the Supreme Court killed the heart of the act last week, it acknowledged that discrimination still exists in voting rights, and left open a path for Congress to enact a new coverage formula that would be based on current voter discrimination data. “Don’t let your voice be stifled,” SALDEF said in a news release, with a link to a petition. “In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision, tell your representatives they must defend our voting rights.”

_________________________ From Sikh News Network archives.