The Ottumwa Courier

June 26, 2013

Voter group watching for changes

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — They try to stay out of politics, say members of the League of Women Voters, but when it comes to voting rights, they're not afraid to speak up.

This week's ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States isn't all bad news, said Beverly VerSteegh, president of the Ottumwa chapter. But it's not all good, either, she said.

"It opens the door for states to make their own rules about what you have to do in order to vote," she said.

And the trend lately, she fears, has been to make it more difficult to vote, not easier. Even in Iowa, which was not named in the suit, the American Civil Liberties Union complained that proposed changes to state code would have harmed legal citizens of Hispanic decent. Had the federal law been different, they may not have been able to fight those new restrictions. But how will the federal law change?

"I don't think we'll know that until Congress has [rewritten] the language of the voter protection acts," VerSteegh said, adding that those new words will determine whether the ruling is good news or bad.

In the past, several states had been hit by the various national voter acts because they had tried to keep blacks from voting, through use of poll taxes or tests designed to trip up African-Americans. So the federal government said those states would have to get permission from the U.S. Justice Department if they wanted to make any changes to how people vote.

The Supreme Court said the government can't punish those states for something that happened 40 years ago. So don't times change?

Maybe, maybe not, said League member Jean Dell.

"How long something has been in existence is not a good indicator of whether it's beneficial," said Dell.

"Things have somewhat changed," said VerSteegh. "But now states have tried to bar Latinos from voting. As long as you have a driver's license, you can register to vote. That 'motor voter' part is acceptable to the high court. But we will still have what we have in place now. We have poll watchers, a Republican and a Democrat, who can [call someone a liar] if they provide false information about their identity."

Dell said she sees the new ruling as being similar to the days when redistricting was done within states to benefit one political group or another.

"Iowa is protected [because our] redistricting is done according to the census every 10 years," Dell said.

With the main decision now made, the league will concentrate locally on its latest priority.

"We're really going to focus on voter registration for new citizens," Dell said. "We have an opportunity July 9 to vote again. What the league is hoping is that we can remind people government goes on all year long."

— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark