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Voting Rights

In early US history, only white adult male property owners were allowed to vote. The 15th Amendment (ratified in 1870 and stipulated that men could not be denied the right to vote based on their race) and later the 19th Amendment (ratified in 1920 and granted women the right to vote) to the US Constitution set the foundation for voting rights in this nation.

Subsequent to the passage of these amendments, African Americans and others still faced discriminatory laws and practices in many parts of the country, especially the South. Poll taxes and literacy tests were used to deliberately suppress African Americans’ freedom to vote.

The fight for voting rights runs parallel to the fight for civil rights and is deeply associated with the African American experience in this country. It is also crucial to note the significance women, youth and people with disabilities have had in the fight for voting rights. But this history has significantly impacted the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) experience as well.

AAPIs have faced overt discrimination in the context of immigration laws that helped create negative stereotypes and the long-held image of the “perpetual foreigner.” Anti-Asian immigration laws not only made it difficult for Asian immigrants to enter and stay in the US, these laws also prevented them from being able to naturalize and become citizens. Immigration and naturalization laws were reformed in the 1940s and 50s to allow Asian immigrants to naturalize and be eligible to vote. Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians have faced similar discrimination, though their experiences are different from that of Asian Americans (see section below).

Acts of voter suppression were finally addressed with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) which provided federal protection for voting rights and prohibited state and local jurisdictions from harming minority voting rights. The VRA included provisions that required jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression to seek prior approval for any changes they planned to make to their election laws.

In 1975 an amendment was included that would require jurisdictions with a significant population of non-English speakers to provide those voters with election materials in their language, also known as “Section 203”. There are currently over 300 jurisdictions that are covered by this section and 53 of those are required to provide language assistance in an Asian language.

In 2013 the Supreme Court struck a blow to the VRA. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled unconstitutional a section of the 1965 law stipulating that states and localities with a history of suppressing voting rights were required to submit election law changes to the US Department of Justice for review.

In the years since that ruling, many states across the country have ramped up barriers to voting, including passing strict voter ID laws, cutting voting hours, and restricting early voting and mail-in ballots.

Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian Voting Rights

The relationship that many islands in the Pacific have had with the US include a long, painful history that includes military force and colonial expansion. The complicated relationships also led to often confusing citizenship and immigration status laws that determine the voting rights of persons from these areas. 

After becoming a state in 1959, people in Hawaii, including of course Native Hawaiians, attained full citizenship rights in the  U.S., including full voting rights. 

In the case of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), while people from those territories are considered US citizens, they cannot vote in presidential elections because they reside in a territory rather than a state within the US. The electoral college system, the mechanism used to elect the President, does not provide for electoral votes in US territories. However, the national political parties may authorize voters in territories to select delegates in primary elections to represent them at the political party conventions.

American Samoa is in a slightly different position than people in Guam or CNMI. People in American Samoa are US nationals, a status that differs from being a US citizen. Like those from Guam and CNMI, they cannot vote in presidential elections because they reside in a territory rather than a state within the US. But they, like those in Guam and CNMI, can participate in the primary process. And as is the case with Guam and CNMI, they can elect one nonvoting delegate to the US House of Representatives, who is permitted to cast votes in committee and on amendments to a bill but not its final passage.

Another difference between persons from American Samoa and Guam or CNMI is that when someone from Guam or CNMI chooses to move to the US, they can participate in elections once they meet the state’s residency requirement to vote (usually 30 days or less). People from American Samoa moving to the US, however, would have to go through the naturalization process to become a US citizen before being able to vote.

There are other Pacific Island nations that have varying relationships with the US. There are Compacts of Free Association with the Micronesia and Marshall Islands and Palau which give these independent nations certain immigration benefits with the US. Other independent island nations such as Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Tonga to name a few, do not have any compacts with the US and therefore no special immigration benefits. Whether a compact exists or not, these Pacific Islands are independent nations and their citizens cannot vote in US elections.

Voting Rights Legislation

What Does Voter Suppression Look Like?

State voter suppression laws that restrict the availability of absentee/mail-in ballots, remove ballot drop boxes, limit early voting opportunities, create confusing voter ID requirements, purge registered voters from the rolls, and reduce polling places, are among the provisions that most harm the AAPI community’s ability to vote.

Many of these recent state laws have been directly aimed at the ways the AAPI community and others have overwhelmingly preferred to vote in recent elections. Examples include:

  • Arizona has made purging voters off absentee ballot mailing lists easier, made it more difficult to get and submit mail-in ballots.
  • Florida  has also made purging voters off absentee ballot mailing lists easier, restricting who can provide assistance in returning a ballot, making registering to vote more difficult, reducing the availability of mail-in ballot drop boxes and reducing early voting opportunities.
  • Georgia is making the mail-in voting procedures more difficult including reducing the number of ballot drop boxes and making it illegal to provide refreshments to people stuck in long polling lines on election day.
  • Texas in 2021 installed one of the nation’s most restrictive election laws. The law’s ID requirements have made the absentee ballot process complicated and arduous. In the first election under the new law, there were reports of thousands of ballots getting rejected. Other restrictive provisions in the Texas law include limits on who can assist a voter in returning a ballot, reducing access to polling places, limited early voting opportunities and making the voter registration process more difficult.

Positive Voter Access Policies

State voter suppression laws can be most effectively addressed through federal legislation. Notably, in January 2022, Congress was very close to passing the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, which is a combination of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. While unfortunately this bill was blocked, it would ultimately serve as the solution in addressing state voter suppression laws.  

The Freedom to Vote Act would standardize voting election laws across the country and would significantly expand voting access, including reversing the effects of dozens of new state-level voting restrictions passed this year. 

What the bill would require on voter access:

  • Election Day as a federal holiday.
  • Online, automatic, and same-day voter registration.
  • A minimum of 15 days of early voting, including during at least two weekends.
  • No-excuse mail voting with ample access to ballot drop boxes and online ballot tracking, in addition to streamlined election mail delivery by the US Postal Service.
  • States would need to accept a wide range of forms of non-photographic identification in places where ID is required to vote. 
  • Counting eligible votes on provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct.
  • Restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated people convicted of felonies.
  • Imposes stricter regulations on voter list maintenance that make it harder for states to remove eligible voters from the rolls.
  • More protections and resources to serve voters with disabilities and overseas/military voters. 
  • Greater federal protections and oversight for voting in US territories.
  • Improving voter registration resources and outreach, in addition to reauthorizing and strengthening the US Election Assistance Commission.
  • The bill also includes the Right to Vote Act, which creates an affirmative right to vote in federal law.

On election administration and redistricting:

  • Prohibits partisan gerrymandering by requiring states to use certain criteria when drawing new congressional districts.
  • Requires states to use voter-verifiable paper ballots and conduct post-election audits.
  • Gives cybersecurity grants to states and directs the EAC to strengthen cybersecurity standards for voting equipment.
  • Prohibits local election officials from being fired or removed without cause.
  • Makes interfering with voter registration a federal crime, and imposes stricter penalties against harassment, threats, and intimidation of election workers.
  • Restates chain of custody requirements protecting the integrity of ballots and election materials, a provision meant to combat unofficial partisan “audits.”

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that have been struck down or weakened by the Supreme Court, and change the way federal courts handle election cases. The bill creates a new formula to restore the federal preclearance requirement mandating states with histories of discrimination to seek permission from the federal government before enacting new voting rules or redistricting plans. 

Other key provisions:

  • Enshrines judicial precedent and legislative history to strengthen efforts to draw majority-minority districts under the parameters of the Voting Rights Act. 
  • Takes aim at the federal courts by requiring judges to explain their reasoning in emergency rulings they take up on the so-called shadow docket, and tries to limit judges’ from relying solely on the proximity to the election in deciding emergency cases on election rules.
  • The Senate version of the law also includes the Election Worker and Polling Place Protection Act, which provides greater federal protections for election workers against harassment and intimidation.
  • The Senate version further tacks on the Native American Voting Rights Act, a bill that strengthens voting rights and voter protections for voters in Indian Country. 

Language Access

One of the most important parts of the Voting Rights Act are the language access provisions, referred to as section 203, which require bilingual voting assistance in certain jurisdictions where a threshold number of language minority voters reside. 

There are currently 53 jurisdictions in 14 states covered by sec. 203 that require coverage in one of eight Asian ethnic communities (Asian Indian, Bangladeshi, Filipino, Cambodian, Chinese, Hmong, Korean, and Vietnamese). Section 203 protects voting rights of language minorities by providing “registration or voting notices, forms, instructions, assistance, or other materials or information relating to the electoral process, including ballots” in the language appropriate to the covered minority group.

Based on the 2020 census there were 6 new jurisdictions covered by section 203 including communities such as: Maui County, HI (Filipino), Dallas County, TX (Vietnamese) and Ramsey County, MN, which is covering a new language not previously covered by sec. 203, Hmong.  Some areas like San Mateo County, CA, which was already required to provide language assistance in Chinese, is now also required by sec. 203 to provide it for the Filipino community residing there. See the full list of jurisdictions covered by section 203 here.


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