Election year voters facing weakest protections against voting discrimination in half a century
WASHINGTON – Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, issued the following statement in advance of the 51st anniversary of Bloody Sunday:
“It has now been 51 years since Bloody Sunday marchers were brutalized by police for taking a stand against rampant voting discrimination across Alabama. Their bravery led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which became one of the most successful civil rights laws in American history.
But since the Supreme Court gutted the VRA nearly three years ago in Shelby County v. Holder, insidious forms of modern day voting discrimination have desecrated the legacy of those marchers. While Congress has taken symbolic steps to honor Selma’s foot soldiers – by visiting Alabama on Bloody Sunday’s anniversary, and by awarding those foot soldiers with a Congressional Gold Medal – many lawmakers have done nothing to restore the law for which those marchers risked their lives. We can no longer thank members of Congress for these commendable, but ultimately empty gestures.
Today, the campaign to restore the VRA is releasing a video highlighting the story of how, before the Supreme Court gutted it, the VRA protected the rights of minority voters when the city of Calera in Shelby County, Alabama, manipulated voting districts in a discriminatory manner to prevent Ernest Montgomery, the sole African American city councilmember, from being re-elected. As Montgomery says in the video, without the VRA’s ability to block discriminatory practices – as is the case now – it’s ‘very doubtful that an African American or maybe some other minority in our community could possibly … be elected here in Calera.’
The video can be viewed below.
The commemorations this week in Selma are a solemn remembrance of the blood, sweat, tears, and lives involved in securing voting rights for racial minorities in this country. The only appropriate way to celebrate that achievement is by working thoughtfully, and expeditiously, to pass one of the bipartisan proposals currently before Congress that would help breathe life back into the law. And this is particularly important ahead of the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the VRA.
We cannot allow obstructionists in Congress to hijack our country’s progress, taking us back to a place where discrimination is the rule for many of our most vulnerable voters.”
This week, during a bicameral, bipartisan ceremony in Emancipation Hall of the U.S. Capitol, members of Congress awarded Selma’s foot soldiers the Congressional Gold Medal. It was a well-deserved tribute to the sacrifices these Americans made in 1965, when marchers in Alabama brought national attention to the denial of their right to vote and spurred passage later that year of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).
Signed by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965, the VRA has been reauthorized on four occasions, each time by a Republican president. Congress most recently voted overwhelmingly in 2006 (98–0 in the Senate, 390–33 in the House) when George W. Bush was in office to reauthorize the law for 25 years. Two senators who voted for that reauthorization, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, spoke at this week’s ceremony to honor the marchers. But in 2016, neither is supporting a proposal in the Senate to restore the law the marchers fought for.
When President Johnson signed the VRA, McConnell, then a law student at the University of Kentucky, was watching in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Forty-one years later as a U.S. senator, McConnell spoke strongly in favor of extending it in 2006. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This a great piece of legislation which has served an important purpose over many years,” he said. “The Voting Rights Act brought about greater justice for all. And while we celebrate that achievement, we must continue to strive for more.”
Sessions, who represents the state where these marchers risked their lives for voting rights, was a lead cosponsor of the law to award the Congressional Gold Medal, which passed unanimously last year. He now sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where voting rights legislation is first considered. In addition to his support for this medal, Sessions should be a cosponsor of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, introduced by the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, in June 2015. He could be pushing the committee’s chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, to hold a hearing on the bill. McConnell, who controls what comes up for a vote on the Senate floor, could be using his position to influence the committee’s consideration of the bill as well.
But they’re not.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who actually supports a separate bipartisan bill to restore the VRA, also spoke at the Gold Medal presentation, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and saying of the foot soldiers that “They did not only change the way we live; they showed us how to live.” Ryan is right that the marchers — whose actions were the catalyst for the VRA’s eventual passage — showed us how to live. They showed us that America should be a place where racial discrimination in voting is not acceptable, where the silencing of some voices to keep others in power will not be tolerated, and where the equal treatment of all people is required. But today, voting discrimination persistsacross the country and Ryan, as a voting rights supporter and House Speaker, should be taking action to ensure the legacy of Selma’s marchers isn’t further stained.
He, like McConnell and Sessions, has done nothing to advance voting rights in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision that gutted the law in 2013.
At the ceremony, Rep. Terri Sewell, who represents Selma, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged their colleagues in Congress to act.
“There are still modern day barriers to voting. Challenges have weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The cause that the foot soldiers marched for is still so important today,” Sewell told the foot soldiers who were present at the ceremony. “We in Congress should give you the gift of strengthening the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
Leader Pelosi had the same message.
“But the men and women of Selma did not march for medals,” she said. “You marched to pass legislation, and you did. If we really truly value the legacy of the Selma foot soldiers, we must come together, Democrats and Republicans, and pass a renewed, restored, and strengthened Voting Rights Act without any further delay.”
“All of you, men and women alike, had the courage to march forward into tear gas and night sticks for voting rights for our democracy. We should have the courage and the decency to hold a vote in Congress on the Voting Rights Act,” Pelosi said.
A day before the ceremony, one of those courageous marchers, Rev. C.T. Vivian, called the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal “humbling.” But he said there was much more Congress could do to contend with discrimination that — in far too many places — continues today.
“When the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, it was like being beaten all over again,” Vivian said. “A medal is a start, but it will not mollify us. The way to truly honor our sacrifice is to restore the Voting Rights Act.”
There is still time for Congress to act before the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the VRA. And while symbolic actions like this week’s ceremony are well-deserved and appreciated, bipartisan proposals in both chambers of Congress continue to languish. As Vivian said, the marchers’ “struggle resulted in a true victory.” The least Congress can do this year is rebuild it.
Last Friday, Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton made their positions on voting rights pretty clear: We don’t need more voting restrictions. We need fewer.
During MSNBC’s candidate forum on Friday evening, moderator Rachel Maddow brought up the issue with Sanders, saying that “voting rights have become a partisan issue.”
The week before the candidate forum, 41 civil and human rights groups called on CNBC and MSNBC to bring up the issue during their upcoming broadcasts. CNBC didn’t ask Republican candidates about voting rights. When MSNBC did, Sanders was ready to respond.
Sanders blasted Republicans for what he views as attempts to make voting more difficult. “It has never occurred to me as a candidate to figure out a way that I could deny the vote to people because they might vote against me. And the people who do that are political cowards, they’re afraid of a fair election. We have a real crisis in this country,” he said. “And what Republicans are doing is so un-American, it is so outrageous. It is literally beyond belief. They are political cowards. And if they can’t face a free election they should get another job.”
Sanders could be referring to a recent situation in Alabama, where the enactment of a voting law requiring photo ID paired with the closing of 31 DMV offices led to serious criticism, including pressure for a federal investigation and calls to restore the VRA. He could also be referring to Republicans’ refusal to let certain voting laws go into effect. Just days after the candidate forum, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican presidential candidate, vetoed a bill that would have made voting much easier in his state.
And even though Maddow didn’t ask Clinton about voting rights during the forum, Clinton did author an op-ed on EBONY.com on Friday that made her position clear.
“And as Dr. King knew well, a political system rigged against full participation at the voting booth only deepens inequality. Republican governors and state legislatures have passed law after law, systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of Americans from voting. What part of democracy are they so afraid of?” That last line has become her signature catchphrase – a question she asked back in June when laying out her vision on voting rights, and one she repeated last month when she penned an op-ed for AL.com in response to the debacle in Alabama.
“I believe every citizen should be registered to vote automatically when they turn 18. Every state should have no fewer than 20 days of early in-person voting,” Clinton wrote in her EBONY.com op-ed. “We should restore voting rights to people who have been convicted of crimes and paid their debts to society—because voting is a central part of our civic life. And Congress must act now to restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. We have fought too long and come too far to go backward now.”
We know Sanders agrees that the VRA must be restored: He is a cosponsor of the Voting Rights Advancement Act – a bill introduced in June by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D. Vt., to restore portions of the VRA gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. Sanders’ colleagues in the Senate who are also seeking the presidency, all Republicans, have not cosponsored Leahy’s bill.
Absent their co-sponsorship, Sens. Rubio, Cruz, Paul, and Graham – and all other candidates – should make clear where they stand on the issue, as Jeb Bush and Ben Carson did last month. After all, everyone trying to win the vote should be willing to protect it – and if they’re not, Americans need to know.
On Election Day last Tuesday, members of the House Democratic Caucus held a press conference to launch a new strategy for passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 – a bill that would restore portions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2013.
Rep. Terri Sewell, D. Ala., who represents Selma, called for every Tuesday to be Restoration Tuesday and include a #RestoreTheVOTE social media push, floor speeches about the need to restore the VRA, and an open call to constituents to share their own stories about modern-day barriers to voting.
“While we no longer have to count marbles in a jar or recite the names of all the counties, there are still laws and decisions that make it harder for people to vote. To restrict the ability of any American to vote is an assault on the rights of all Americans to equally participate in the electoral process,” Sewell said last week. “My hope is that by launching #RestoreTheVOTE, we gain grassroots support for restoring the right of every American to vote. In order to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act we must get everyday Americans to care and demand congressional action to protect voting rights. We cannot silence ANY voices within our electorate. We must RESTORE THE V.O.T.E. — the VOICES OF THE EXCLUDED!”
Sewell’s call wasn’t left unanswered. Dozens of House Democrats, in addition to the Twitter accounts of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, were engaged. And Sen. Patrick Leahy, D. Vt., who introduced the Advancement Act in the Senate, also participated.
On the House floor, Reps. Joyce Beatty, D. Ohio, and James Clyburn, D. S.C., who’s also the Assistant Democratic Leader in the House, spoke about why this effort was needed – especially in the context of Election Day.
“When the United States Supreme Court invalidated key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, it invited Congress to update the formula that determines which jurisdictions should be covered,” Clyburn said during his floor speech. “Unfortunately, while Congress has failed to act, we have seen jurisdiction after jurisdiction all across this country attempting to erect impediments to the right to vote.”
“It’s Election Day in Ohio,” Beatty said. “Right now, my constituents are casting ballots to decide their next local, state, judicial elected officials. Participating in our democratic process is not only a right. But it is a duty. Unfortunately for many Americans, voting recently again became more difficult in 2013.”
If Congress doesn’t act, voters in 2016 will face the first presidential election in 50 years without the VRA’s full protections. In a video promoting Restoration Tuesdays, Rep. John Lewis, D. Ga., who was beaten on Bloody Sunday in 1965, made that point – that even 50 years later, the struggle continues. “The fight for voting rights is not over. The Supreme Court made a bad decision. They’re trying to take us back,” he said. “That’s why we must continue to press on.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R. Va., opened last Thursday’s Planned Parenthood hearing in a fascinating way. Goodlatte took a moment to remember the life of former Congressman Don Edwards, who passed away earlier this month at 100, citing his “distinguished career” that included work on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA).
Here’s why Goodlatte’s memorialization of Edwards was strange.
Since the distorted and fraudulent campaign against Planned Parenthood Federation of America – bolstered by selectively edited videos created by the Center for Medical Progress – began just months ago, the House has held four hearings to investigate Planned Parenthood. Between September 9 and October 8, the House Judiciary Committee hosted two of them.
But since the U.S. Supreme Court eviscerated the VRA in June 2013 with its Shelby County v. Holder decision, Goodlatte has done nothing to consider persistent voting discrimination in the United States.
At Thursday’s hearing, some Democratic members of the committee took notice.
Ranking Member John Conyers, D. Mich., questioned why the House was holding its fourth hearing on the issue, and why there was a need to create a new, taxpayer-funded select committee to continue the investigation. He also wondered why the Judiciary Committee wasn’t focusing on other issues, like voting rights.
“It’s important to observe all of the good work this committee could be doing instead of meeting for the second time on this subject in 30 days. And as we head into our second election season since Shelby County v. Holder, this committee has done very little – could do a lot more – to restore the enforcement mechanisms of the Voting Rights Act,” Conyers said. “This committee has too much important work to do.”
Rep. Steve Cohen, D. Tenn., made a similar statement.
“We could be talking about voting rights, something that Don Edwards voted for and greatly supported, and my friend Julian Bond – memorialized on Tuesday – championed,” Cohen said.
Cohen lamented that, on voting rights, the United States has “taken a big step back.”
If Goodlatte were serious about honoring the life of Don Edwards, he could start by holding hearings on issues that Edwards cared about – like voting rights. As The New York Timesnoted, Edwards said that the 1982 VRA reauthorization was the most important of the civil rights bills he worked on. President Reagan signed that bill into law, and President George W. Bush reauthorized it again in 2006.
Instead of paying tribute to Edwards with hollow statements, Goodlatte should follow the VRA’s strong bipartisan history and start taking voting discrimination seriously.
Republican presidential candidates have had plenty of opportunities to talk about voting rights.
Their debate last month was at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and happened just hours after the NAACP’s America’s Journey for Justice rallied in Washington, D.C., and advocated on Capitol Hill for legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The setting would have been appropriate – as president, Reagan reauthorized the VRA in 1982 for 25 years, and said “the right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished.”
Their first debate in Cleveland was actually held on the VRA’s 50th anniversary. It also marked 40 years since President Gerald Ford, a Republican, extended the law.
Ten years ago when the law turned 40, Republican president George W. Bush issued a proclamation calling for the anniversary to be a day of celebration to honor the VRA.
“America is a stronger and better Nation because of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As President Johnson said upon signing the Act, it is ‘a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield.’ The Act was a great step forward in the history of our Nation, and it remains essential as we continue our progress toward a society in which every person of every background can realize the American Dream.”
Given the opportunities that Republican presidential candidates have had to discuss the law, and given, especially, the law’s overwhelmingly bipartisan history, it’s frustrating that Bush’s brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, doesn’t think the law is necessary. On October 8, Jeb said at an event in Iowa that “There has been dramatic improvement in access to voting” and that he would not reauthorize the law.
As Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, points out, “As Florida’s Governor, Jeb Bush oversaw the wrongful purge of thousands of Black voters from Florida’s voting roles, leading to a Voting Rights Act lawsuit against the state. Florida is now largely known for its seven-hour voting lines in African-American precincts.”
George W. Bush traveled to Selma earlier this year to honor Bloody Sunday’s foot soldiers and sat on a stage at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge as President Obama called on Congress to restore the VRA in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder.
Ari Berman, writing for The Nation, probably concluded best: “It’s a shame Jeb didn’t make the trip – he might have learned something.”
But since he missed Selma’s commemorative activities this year, he should learn from what’s happening right now in the state of Alabama. Voting discrimination in the United States isn’t a thing of the past, and a VRA – one with its full protections restored – is still desperately needed.
Eight months ago at the beginning of the 114th Congress, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R. Iowa, announced the chairs, ranking members, and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittees. Two and a half months earlier, Republicans had taken control of the U.S. Senate, and now Grassley – the new chair of the committee – was reporting that Sen. John Cornyn, R. Texas, would be the chair of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.
But Grassley’s announcement lacked five critical words: civil rights and human rights.
At the time, Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called the deletion “a discouraging sign given the growing diversity of our nation and the complex civil and human rights challenges we face.”
She wasn’t wrong.
The 2014 midterm elections were the first in nearly 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) and, since taking control, Senate Republican leadership has taken no action to investigate modern-day voting discrimination – despite ample evidence that it persists.
Last month, a day before the VRA’s 50th anniversary, a federal court in Texas ruled that the state’s strict voter ID law discriminated against Black and Hispanic voters in violation of the VRA. That hasn’t moved Cornyn, the state’s senior senator and Senate Majority Whip, to call for a hearing on a bill to restore the law.
This is bizarre, especially since Cornyn voted in 2006 to reauthorize the VRA for 25 more years, including the portion struck down in 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the law in Shelby County v. Holder. Speaking on the Senate floor on July 20, 2006, Cornyn said that he represents a state “that is covered by section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which is one of the sections that is being reauthorized today, hopefully.”
He even said that “the Voting Rights Act is simply the most important and most effective civil rights legislation ever passed,” though he did question whether the covered states in Section 5 were still the appropriate ones to cover. In any case, he recognized that – while the United States has advanced as a nation – modern-day voting discrimination was still a problem, and preclearance in some form was still necessary.
It was appropriate for Cornyn to believe in the Voting Rights Act. He now occupies the seat in the U.S. Senate once held by Lyndon B. Johnson, who first signed it into law.
When President Johnson signed the VRA, now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R. Ky., then a law student at the University of Kentucky, was watching in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.
Forty-one years later as a U.S. senator, McConnell spoke in favor of reauthorizing the VRA. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This a great piece of legislation which has served an important purpose over many years,” he said.
“The Voting Rights Act brought about greater justice for all,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “And while we celebrate that achievement, we must continue to strive for more.”
Grassley, at the time, agreed.
As he had done in 1982 when Ronald Reagan was president, Grassley also voted to reauthorize the VRA in 2006 under President George W. Bush. “I will repeat what I said on this floor 15 years ago: It’s is our duty to guarantee that all citizens have the same opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice,” he said in 2006. “All of us here today recognize that it is our duty, as elected representatives of the people, as guardians of democracy, to protect the right to vote.”
Unfortunately, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee today, Grassley has done nothing to protect that right.
“Changing the name of this subcommittee is a poor start,” Zirkin said back in January when Republicans dropped “civil rights and human rights” from the name of Cornyn’s subcommittee, “but the proof of the panel’s seriousness about addressing these issues will become apparent in its actual work.”
So far, what Zirkin and others feared when those five words were dropped may be coming true. There’s been no work at the committee level to examine voting discrimination and move voting rights forward. Far from a symbolic name change, the deletion may have removed any sign for Republican leadership that there’s still work to be done in the United States on civil and human rights. And that’s a shame.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R. Alaska, on Thursday announced her support for the Voting Rights Advancement Act, making her the first Republican in the Senate to cosponsor legislation to help restore the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013.
“Senator Murkowski’s decision to co-sponsor the Voting Rights Advancement Act sends a clear signal to Congress that, as history shows, both parties can work together to restore the VRA,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “We applaud Senator Murkowski for championing this effort and encourage her fellow Republicans in the House and Senate to join with her to restore the bipartisan Voting Rights Act.”
The Advancement Act, introduced in June by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D. Vt., and Rep. Terri Sewell, D. Ala., responds to the unique, modern-day challenges of voting discrimination that has evolved in the past 50 years since the VRA was first signed by President Johnson. The bill recognizes that changing demographics require tools that protect voters nationwide – especially voters of color, language minorities, people with disabilities, young people, and seniors. It also requires that jurisdictions make voting changes public and transparent. The bill currently has no Republican cosponsors in the House.
A bill Leahy introduced in January 2014, the Voting Rights Amendment Act, never garnered any Senate Republican support – though it was supported by 11 Republicans in the House, including Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R. Wisc., who introduced the bill and was instrumental in the VRA’s 2006 reauthorization. A version of the bill reintroduced this year currently has 12 Republican cosponsors.
Since Shelby, efforts to restore the VRA in the House have been blocked by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R. Va., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. While Leahy held a hearing on voting rights in the Senate in 2014 when he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, Goodlatte hasn’t yet taken that step. Instead, he said as recently as June that restoring voter protections isn’t necessary.
Murkowski’s co-sponsorship comes just over a month after the VRA’s 50th anniversary, and almost six months to the day after Bloody Sunday’s 50th anniversary, when 100 lawmakers gathered in Selma, Ala., to commemorate the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. Despite celebration of Selma’s foot soldiers, including a Congressional Gold Medal to honor them, Congress has not yet acted to restore the VRA.
In 1971, the U.S. Congress designated August 26 as “Women’s Equality Day” to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th amendment – guaranteeing women the right to vote – and to honor the brave women and men who fought for women’s suffrage. Today, on the 95th anniversary of the 19th amendment, the right to vote seems unalienable and fundamental to any democracy – but nearly 100 years ago, many Americans didn’t think women should have that right.
The women’s suffrage movement spanned more than 70 years, and was carried out by tens of thousands of tireless advocates. To win the right to vote, generations of suffragists circulated petitions, gave speeches, and published newspapers, pamphlets and magazines. Despite seemingly insurmountable legal, financial, and political barriers, the movement became one of our country’s most successful civil rights efforts.
But today, nearly 100 years after women won their fundamental right to participate freely in their democracy, the right to vote is under attack. In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. In the two years since then, states across the country have passed laws making it harder to vote through the elimination of early voting and same-day registration opportunities and restrictive voter ID requirements. These laws have had a disproportionately harmful effect on low-income voters, communities of color, people with disabilities, students, and the elderly – all groups that are, of course, comprised in part by women.
And for women, strict voter ID laws can pose a fairly unique problem. In the aftermath of Shelby, Texas was free to enact one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the nation – a law that a federal court struck down prior to Shelby in 2012, ruling that the law would potentially disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of minority voters. Because of the strict ID provision, when Texas judge Sandra Watts tried to vote using the same identification she had been using for the last 50 years, she was unable to do so. The problem? Watts’ driver’s license lists her maiden name as her middle name, but on the state voting rolls, her given middle name is there. For women in Texas, getting married, getting divorced, or making any other adjustment to your name can be a barrier to voting.
Almost five months to the day after Speaker of the House John Boehner issued a statement to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the Ohio congressman’s website and Twitter feed on August 6 – the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act – was noticeably silent on issues of voting.
“Guided by their determination, inspired by their courage, and moved by their call for justice,” Boehner said of the Selma marchers, “let us honor their sacrifice by rededicating ourselves to the cause of freedom and equal opportunity for every American.”
That was on March 7. Three days earlier, Boehner signed a measure awarding a Congressional Gold Medal to Selma’s foot soldiers, saying, “Long may we retrace their journey. Long may we remember their struggle. Long may they remain an example.”
On voting rights issues, though, Boehner and other members of House Republican leadership aren’t living up to the examples set 50 years ago. Despite evidence of widespread voter discrimination, and despite the introduction of two bills in the House that would help to restore portions of the VRA gutted in Shelby County v. Holder, there has been no movement to even examine the issue at the committee level.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, whose comments on modern-day voting discrimination (namely, that it doesn’t exist) have become a broken record in the two years since Shelby, is blocking that examination – in the form of a hearing. Less than two months ago, just three days before the second Shelby anniversary, Goodlatte said that we still have a “strong” Voting Rights Act. “We are certainly willing to look at any new evidence of discrimination if there is a need to take any measures,” he said in an interview. “But at this point in time, we have not seen that, and therefore no changes have been made since the Supreme Court decision.”
Civil rights advocates have taken issue with that constant, myopic response. In separate letters to Boehner and Goodlatte on the VRA’s anniversary, Wade Henderson and Nancy Zirkin of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights expressed their “profound disappointment” in the leaders’ inaction, which they call an “abdication of [their] responsibility to the Congress and to the nation.” Pointing to examples in Ohio and Virginia – Boehner’s and Goodlatte’s home states, respectively – and other modern cases in North Carolina and Texas, the letters illustrate that, despite claims that voting discrimination is a thing of the past, voters across the country are being disenfranchised.
But there’s another member of House Republican leadership that should be encouraging efforts to restore the VRA: Majority Whip Steve Scalise. After Scalise acknowledged in late December 2014 that he had given a speech in 2002 to a white supremacist, anti-Semitic, and neo-Nazi organization, Henderson and Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, wrote to Scalise, met with him, and then wrote to him again urging him to take action on issues of race and to help move forward efforts to protect voters.
Scalise has taken no action. “We explained the need for action, and you offered to help,” wrote Henderson and Morial in their third letter to him on August 6. “That offer has rung hollow. As part of House Leadership, you have a responsibility to serve not only the constituents in your district, but also the broader national constituency.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has at least signaled an interest in holding a House hearing on voting rights, saying, “an overall review, I think, it’s the right time to do it.” And McCarthy, too, at least traveled to Selma this year to commemorate Bloody Sunday in person, not simply with a statement. Boehner, Goodlatte, and Scalise have refused to do anything at all.
Given a recent Fifth Circuit Court decision saying that Texas’s voter ID law – which was blocked by the VRA’s now inoperable preclearance provision prior to Shelby but implemented after the decision and enforced during last November’s election, disenfranchising as many as 600,000 voters – is a violation of the VRA because it discriminates against Black and Hispanic voters, the existence of racial discrimination in voting is no longer negotiable. Across the country, eligible voters are being denied access to the ballot, and it’s time for House leadership to finally acknowledge it and take action.