Editorial Memo: On 50th Anniversary of the VRA, Congress Must Protect the Right to Vote

Dear Editors,

This Thursday, August 6, will mark 50 years since our nation’s most effective civil rights law was signed into law. For most of that time, the Voting Rights Act helped ensure that every eligible citizen, regardless of race, had the opportunity to freely participate in elections and have a voice in our great democracy. However, on this historic anniversary, the fundamental right to vote is in more danger than at any time in the last half century due to the Supreme Court’s destructive Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013 to gut the law.

This week, civil rights and voting rights groups are hosting events all across the country commemorating the 50th anniversary of the VRA and calling on Congress to restore the law’s crucial protections. On August 6, members of Congress from both parties will publicly honor the law and the brave Americans who fought for it, but many of them have done nothing to restore it.

We encourage you to write about the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act to highlight the need for lawmakers to act in a bipartisan fashion on legislation to restore the protections of the VRA, and to hold those who ignore this need accountable for their willful indifference to modern day voting discrimination.

About the Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, Congress made history when it came together across party lines to ensure the right to vote for every American. Inspired by the courage of the Selma marchers, Congress worked quickly to pass the VRA. The work to protect Americans from voter discrimination has been bipartisan for the last 50 years. Every reauthorization of the VRA was passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities, and signed into law by presidents like Ronald Regan, and, most recently, George W. Bush in 2006.

The Unraveling of the VRA Legacy in the Aftermath of Shelby v. Holder

Since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law on August 6, 1965, the VRA has been an indispensable tool for combating voter discrimination, and a fitting tribute to the courageous Selma marchers. The VRA honored the dignity of the brave Americans who risked and gave their lives to secure the right to vote. For the first time, millions of minority voters were able to exercise their constitutional right to participate in elections.

The law ended literacy tests, poll taxes, and other intentionally discriminatory mechanisms. In the 21st century, the VRA has been used to combat modern voting discrimination in the form of inequitable redistricting plans, restrictive voter ID laws, artificial barriers to voting, elimination of early voting opportunities, and unfair polling place changes.

But the civil rights legacy of the VRA and the Selma heroes has been unraveled by the voting discrimination that has flourished since the Supreme Court gutted the VRA in 2013. In the two years since the Shelby decision, voter discrimination has run rampant throughout the country, casting a dark shadow over the democracy on which our nation so prides itself—and to which other countries look to as an example. As soon as the Shelby decision was handed down, states and localities rushed to push through discriminatory laws that make it harder to vote. Voter ID laws and the elimination of early voting opportunities have been enacted all over the country and have had an especially harmful effect on people of color, low-income communities, people with disabilities and students. On the 50th anniversary of a law that was designed to expand and protect access to the ballot, nearly half of our 50 states have enacted policies restricting it.

Congress Must Act Now to Restore the VRA

Despite public outcry and widespread evidence of voter discrimination, Congress has failed to restore the protections of the VRA. For two years, members of Congress have dragged their feet on this issue and shirked from their constitutional obligation to protect the cornerstone of our democracy. If Congress doesn’t act soon, voters in 2016 will face the first presidential election in 50 years without crucial protections in federal law to combat voter discrimination.

Congress now has two bills—the Voting Rights Amendment Act and the Voting Rights Advancement Act—to use to restore the VRA. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., recently said that it is time for an “overall review” of the issue, and that he would like to see debate on voting rights legislation go forward. However, many of his Republican colleagues—including House Judiciary Chair Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.—have failed to even acknowledge the reality of voter discrimination and the need for a restored VRA.

Every lawmaker should make restoring the VRA a priority, especially those who publicly pays tribute to the law and the Selma marchers this Thursday. Congress must work to restore the law upon returning to Washington. Failing to do so betrays the legacy of the Selma marchers, the American people, and our democracy.
We encourage you to write or editorialize about this issue. Please do not hesitate to reach out to Scott Simpson for more information at 202.466.2061 or Simpson@civilrights.org.