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League of Women Voters of Greater Peoria event focuses on voting rights and voter suppression

The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court

Meghan Leonard, an Illinois State University associate professor of politics and government, says there is clear evidence today of voter suppression that needs to be confronted.

“Between 1965 and 2013, there was a general agreement among both parties that we should expand voting access in whatever way we can," she said. "A few things happened more recently that really changed this conversation. Now, we’re at a point where voting rights and voting access is no longer something we all agree should be expanded.”

Leonard said one of the big contributors to an increase in voter suppression is the Shelby County v. Holder decision of 2013, where the Supreme Court ruled that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. The decision shifted the focus of challenging voting laws and restrictions from those who pass laws to those that challenge them.

Leonard was the featured speaker during Wednesday evening’s “Making Democracy Work” virtual event hosted by the League of Women Voters of Greater Peoria, and focusing on "Voting Rights and State Level Voting Restrictions."

To Leonard, the most prevalent form of voter suppression is voter identification laws.

She said while the Supreme Court said these new laws were constitutional as long as they did not require monetary payment, 11% of adults lack proper identification. Leonard said a lack of birth certificates, limited time to visit the DMV and DMV office closures can prevent citizens from having proper identification during elections.

“The other 89% of adults cannot fathom not having identification. This split between lower-income people, older folks, people of color, college students, the type of people who don’t have IDs and everybody else, the voter ID laws are easier to sell because people can’t wrap their minds around them,” Leonard said.

To fight against voter suppression laws, Leonard said citizens must talk about the issue outside of voter ID-related suppression, such as voter purges and gerrymandering. She said between 2014 and 2016, 16 million voters were purged from voting rolls, and racial and partisan gerrymandering have attempted to influence election outcomes.

Also, elimination of early voting opportunities and random polling closures create issues for individuals who struggle to access ballots during regular voting hours.

However, Leonard said citizens can fight against all forms of voter suppression.

“We need to support politicians who want to expand the right to vote and then tell them that’s why we supported them. I think for a lot of politicians, they don’t’ realize how important voting access is to the public because there’s so many other issues happening,” she said.

In Illinois, Leonard said citizens also can support an independent redistricting commission and support a federal voting rights amendment.

“There’s not right to vote in the constitution, which I think is a big misconception," she said. "When state legislatures or Congress pass legislation, there’s no constitutional protection to say, 'If this limits somebody’s right to vote, it’s unconstitutional.' It can be unconstitutional under the 15th amendment or the 19th amendment, but there’s no formal, ‘We have a right to vote’ in the constitution.'”

Beyond the major issues, Leonard said it's important to pay attention to the small details surrounding voter suppression that prevent some individuals from voting. She encourages people to contact their representatives, speak with media and even help citizens vote by explaining the step-by-step process of voting to people and assisting those without proper transportation to get to voting ballots on election days.

“Talk to people about why voter suppression hurts people. A lot of us don’t see it because it doesn’t affect us because we’re these regular voters who have a license, and it’s no big deal,” Leonard said. “Mostly, it’s just raising awareness. Call out voter suppression, even in the smallest forms in the local area.”

Lastly, Leonard said educating young people, the future voters in the United States, on how to vote and the process of registering is significant if voter suppression laws are to be stopped.
Copyright 2021 WGLT. To see more, visit WGLT.