On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed what would become our nation’s most effective civil rights law – the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The law ended literacy tests, poll taxes, and other intentionally discriminatory mechanisms that prevented minorities from voting. 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 began to unravel on June 25, 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court made the disastrous decision to gut the VRA in Shelby County v. Holder. The decision struck down some of the law’s most crucial voter protections. Prior to Shelby, states and localities with a history of discrimination had to get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice before enacting any voting law changes. Now free from federal oversight, states have pushed through discriminatory laws that make it more difficult 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. Despite public outcry and widespread evidence of voter discrimination, Congress has failed to restore the critical voting protections lost in Shelby.
In 2014, the bipartisan Voting Rights Amendment Act was introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. While the Voting Rights Amendment Act received a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, the legislation didn’t move any further and never got a hearing in the House.
Now, Congress has two bills to use as vehicles to restore the VRA: the Voting Rights Amendment Act and the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which was introduced in 2015. If Congress doesn’t act soon, voters in the 2016 election will face the first presidential election in half a century without strong federal protections against voting discrimination.