It’s been three years since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act or VRA. What does that mean for Americans? What even IS the VRA?
If you are, like I was, unfamiliar with the VRA, this blog will explore why it was–and still is–essential to American Democracy.
President Lyndon B. Johnson’s address to Congress about his vision of a Voting Rights Act occurred on March 15, 1965. His speech took place one week after the events in Selma, Alabama.
On March 7, 1965, 600 civil rights supporters were attacked by state and local lawmen with billy clubs and tear gas. At that time, only 2% of Selma’s eligible black voters, 300 out of 15,000, were able to register in the county to vote.
This is how President Johnson’s speech began:
Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Members of the Congress:
I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.
I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.
At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.
There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.
This is a poignant beginning, a call to remember times in American history when a great decision had to be made. But what struck me most in reading his speech was this paragraph:
“There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans–we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.”
President Johnson went on to explain he would send to Congress “a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote.”
The main focus of this legislation was to strike down restrictions to voting in all elections that had been used to deny African-Americans the right to vote and create a uniform standard so properly registered citizens were not prohibited from voting.
Why was such a bill necessary? Here were a few reasons President Johnson listed:
- Potential African American voters were told when they went to register they were there on the wrong day
- They were disqualified for not spelling out their middle names
- They were given tests and the registrar decided if they passed (most didn’t)
- They were asked to recite the entire Constitution!
- They were quizzed on complex provisions of State Law.
As President Johnson summarized : “… the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin.”
Listen to the speech here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxEauRq1WxQ
President Johnson welcomed suggestions from Congress– and joked that he had no doubt he would get some. However, he signed this landmark piece of federal legislation into law on August 6, 1965, just six months after it was proposed.
Congress worked together to pass legislation in a short time to better the lives of Americans. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, it is the most effective piece of civil rights legislation enacted by our country.
The Supreme Court Decision
The Voting Rights Act was challenged throughout the decades after it became law. However, the Act was amended numerous times by Congress to stop it from expiring. They even expanded some of its provisions, particularly the ban on “tests or devices” before a person could register. For instance, they expanded protections so non-English language minorities would not be discriminated against. Congress even enacted legislation to overturn Supreme Court decisions that lessened the protections of the VRA.
Then came Shelby County v. Holder (2013) 570 U.S. 193. A county in the state of Alabama sued then U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, stating that two provisions in the VRA were unconstitutional and they sought a permanent injunction against them.
What were the provisions being challenged?
Section 5 is a “preclearance” law that requires affected states to seek pre-approval for changes in voting rules that could affect minorities from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington D.C. This provision blocked discrimination before it could occur.
Section 4(b) determined the states and localities covered by Section 5.
On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the coverage formula in Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act — which determines which jurisdictions are covered by Section 5 — is unconstitutional because it is based on an old formula. As a practical matter this means that Section 5 is inoperable until Congress enacts a new coverage formula, which the decision invited Congress to do. They stated that Congress “may draft another formula based on current conditions.”
During this current election year, the United States– and the world–is getting a full perspective of divisiveness between Democrats and Republicans. Currently, the debate over gun control law has led to a sit-in in the House by Democrats attempting to get legislation to move forward. Has Congress fixed the VRA? No.
This is the first Presidential election in 50 years without the protections of the VRA.
Seventeen states have new voting restrictions in place for the 2016 presidential race, including more than half of those previously covered by Section 5 of the VRA, and representing 189 electoral votes, 70 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to clinch the presidency. https://www.thenation.com/article/the-gutting-of-the-voting-rights-act-could-decide-the-2016-election/
Voting rights have been affected during the primaries as demonstrated by:
- 5 hour lines to vote in Arizona due to the closing of 70% of polling places, primarily in minority areas.
- North Carolina passed the nation’s most restrictive voter laws.
- 120,000 voters purged from the polls in Brooklyn, New York.
- Texas, restricted previously under the VRA, enacted strict voter ID laws that would impact minorities disproportionately.
- Longtime voters blocked from the polls due to Wisconsin’s new Voter ID law
- Ohio cut voting hours and cut “Golden Week” where voters could register and vote pre-election day.
- Plus much more being changed to disenfranchise voters by state law changes.
- Read what happened in just one year http://civilrightsdocs.info/pdf/reports/2016-Voting-Rights-Report-FOR-WEB.pdf
- More here: https://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/shelby-county-one-year-later
And for those who are worried about “voter fraud” if voters don’t have correct ID or other requirements, it’s been found that UFO sightings are more common than voter fraud. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/03/voter-fraud-laws-gop-minority-voters-elections
What is being done? How can you help?
In 2014, a bipartisan bill was put forth to strengthen and restore the act’s core provisions, but the Senate only held one hearing on it and the House refused to hold a hearing.
On February 11, 2015, to mark the 50th anniversary of the VRA, this bipartisan bill was put forth again. IT STILL HAS NOT BEEN PASSED.
The Voting Rights Amendment Act would, among other changes:
- Require jurisdictions with a recent record of repeated Voting Rights Act violations to pre-clear election law changes.
- Expand the current “bail-in” procedures, which allow courts to subject jurisdictions to preclearance.
- Create a uniform requirement to inform voters of certain pending voting changes.
- Enhance the ability of lawyers to halt discriminatory election measures before they can harm citizens.
- Allow federal observers to monitor elections to ensure compliance with laws protecting the rights of Americans who speak limited English.
If you’d like to help get this bill moved forward and passed, contact your Congressman and sign a petition here: https://secure2.convio.net/comcau/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=785