Why We’re Challenging House Republican Leadership to Act on Voting Rights

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.

McCarthy Could be Key to Restoring the VRA

When then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary race last June just two weeks before the first anniversary of Shelby County v. Holder, his defeat appeared to remove the only member of Republican leadership who supported a path forward on restoring the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

Seven weeks later, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R. Calif., took over the Majority Leader post, and voting rights advocates wondered: Where does he stand on voting rights?

As Leslie Proll, director of NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Washington, D.C. office, pointed out, though McCarthy wasn’t in Congress in 2006 when the VRA was overwhelmingly reauthorized, he co-chaired Congress’s civil rights pilgrimage to Alabama in 2012 to honor the 47th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Now McCarthy had a chance, as Proll put it, to “show that his visit to Selma was more than just a photo op.”

And though McCarthy hasn’t cosponsored any legislation to fix the law that was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder, two weeks ago he said publically that any voting rights restoration bill would have to start in the Judiciary Committee – and that now is the time for that to happen. “On a personal level, I’d like to see the debate go forward,” McCarthy said. “I’d like to see [us] have the debate in committee. I think everything, when it’s first written and where the world is today, has changed. So just as most of our bills, how do you modernize?”

“An overall review, I think, it’s the right time to do it.”

But the chairman of that committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R. Va., said earlier this year that it’s not necessary to restore the law – a position he’s maintained since Shelby.

As the nation commemorates the VRA’s 50th anniversary this week, McCarthy must make the case to Goodlatte that holding a hearing in his committee is the right thing to do. It’s the logical way for Congress to explore modern cases of racial discrimination in voting, but it’s also an appropriate method of honoring those who marched 50 years ago.

And McCarthy has been – symbolically, at least – honoring them. He again made the trip to Selma this March to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday (as he tweeted about here and here), and he also delivered a speech on the House floor a month earlier when Congress was considering a measure to award Congressional Gold Medals to Selma’s foot soldiers.

“We are gathered today in honor of those civil rights activists who suffered violence while standing for peace,” McCarthy said at the end of his speech. “We honor them for holding our nation to the highest ideals, ensuring the true existence of liberty and justice for all, and making this country keep to its promise that all men and women are created equal.”

If McCarthy wants to move beyond the symbolism and actually honor those marchers, he should strongly encourage Goodlatte to finally hold a hearing on voting rights – because 50 years after the VRA was signed into law, racial discrimination in voting isn’t over. And without a law to restore it, it’s only going to keep getting worse.

Americans across the Country Call on Congress to Restore the VRA in 50th Anniversary Month

August 4, 2015
Contact: Scott Simpson, 202.466.2061, Simpson@civilrights.org

WASHINGTON On the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, concerned citizens all over the country are calling on Congress to restore the crucial protections of the VRA that were lost in the Supreme Court’s destructive Shelby County v. Holder decision to gut the landmark civil rights law. Advocates are participating in voting rights events in every region of the U.S.

In the two years since the Shelby decision, nearly half of the 50 states have enacted policies that make it harder to vote. A surge of discriminatory voter ID requirements and laws eliminating early voting opportunities have deprived Americans of their fundamental right, 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 shirked from its constitutional obligation to protect the right to vote. Unless Congress acts, voters in 2016 will face the first presidential election in half a century where they lack crucial protections in federal law to combat racial discrimination in voting. Congress now has two bills—the Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Voting Rights Amendment Act—to use as vehicles to restore the VRA. Congress has no excuses for failing to act.

Quote from Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights:

“Fifty years ago, Congress made history and came together across party lines to enact our nation’s most effective civil rights law. From California to Georgia, Alabama to New York, Americans are demanding that Congress protect their right to vote. As we commemorate the VRA and honor those who fought so hard for it, we also lament that Americans have the weakest voting protections than at any time in the last 50 years. When Congress returns to Washington this fall, its first order of business must be to restore the VRA.”

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.

Hundreds Gather in Roanoke for Voting Rights and Democracy

On June 25, hundreds of concerned citizens rallied in Roanoke, Va., to mark the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision to gut the Voting Rights Act. At the rally, advocates from more than 25 civil rights and voting rights organizations urged Congress to restore the voting protections lost in Shelby.


Attendees put pressure on Roanoke’s longtime Congressman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R. Va., Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to hold a hearing on legislation to restore the VRA. Goodlatte was a vocal supporter of the VRA when it was last reauthorized in 2006, but now says that voter discrimination doesn’t exist and a restored VRA isn’t needed.

Participating organizations published numerous op-eds and statements in the lead-up to the rally:

Local and national media coverage of the rally:

This Texas Voter’s Story Will Convince You it’s Time to #RestoreTheVRA

The day before the second anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s destructive Shelby County v. Holder decision – and on the day lawmakers introduced a new bill to fix it – the Campaign Legal Center released a short, three-minute film highlighting how one state in particular is restricting access to the ballot box.

The film features Tony, an engineer who came to Texas to attend the University of Houston. Tony changed his last name in 1964 after his parents were married and has voted in every election he’s been able to, but with Texas’s new restrictive voting law, he’s barred from voting because he can’t prove his identity.

In the film, Abbie Kamin, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center, tells Tony, “As the law stands now, based on your circumstances, you may not ever be able to vote.”

“This is about the state of Texas using taxpayer dollars to implement the most restrictive photo ID law in the country that is intentionally used to suppress minority and low-income voters,” Kamin says.

In a statement, Gerry Hebert, executive director of Campaign Legal Center, said, “Tony’s deeply troubling story puts a very human face on the impact of a heartless law that disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of Texans, and intentionally and disproportionately stripped the right to vote from minority voters.”

Tony feels that heartlessness very strongly.

“I’m living in a country that doesn’t want me, and that is an awful feeling. So it goes beyond a simple 2014 election,” Tony says. “It’s a deep-seated thing. It’s feeling like you’re in a place physically, but they don’t want you to be part of it.”

Watch his story here:

Advocates to Rally in Roanoke for Voting Rights and Democracy on Shelby Anniversary

Rep. Goodlatte and Congress Urged to Restore the Voting Rights Act

For Immediate Release
Contact: Scott Simpson, 202.466.2061, simpson@civilrights.org
June 16, 2015

ROANOKE— On Thursday, June 25, hundreds of concerned Americans will join civil rights and voting rights advocates in Roanoke, Virginia’s Elmwood Park to mark the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision to gut the Voting Rights Act. Attendees will rally to defend the right to vote and to support a restoration of the Voting Rights Act. The rally will be attended by a large contingent of Roanoke-area residents who will be joined by buses and vans from Richmond and Tidewater, Virginia, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C.

Quote from Wade Henderson, President and CEO, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights:

“In this 50th anniversary year of the Voting Rights Act, voters are more vulnerable to discrimination than at any time since the law was first passed in 1965. Congressional leadership has yet to act on restoring the law and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who represents part of Roanoke and chairs the House Judiciary Committee, has yet to take action to protect voters from discrimination in Virginia and throughout the nation.

“Despite public outcry since the Shelby decision, Rep. Goodlatte has refused to even acknowledge widespread voting discrimination or to allow a hearing in his committee. Virginians currently live under racially gerrymandered districts; they understand that protecting voting rights for all means holding Congress and Rep. Goodlatte accountable for ignoring the responsibility to act.”

Participating organizations include the following national organizations alongside their state and local chapters: The Leadership Conference, Democracy Initiative, NAACP, NAACP Voter Fund, Communications Workers of America, A. Phillip Randolph Institute, Human Rights Campaign, Common Cause, Sierra Club, Asian Americans Advancing Justice—AAJC, the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, Japanese American Citizens League, LULAC, Bend the Arc Jewish Action, League of Women Voters, NALEO, AFT, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, National Black Justice Coalition, National Action Network, People for the American Way, AFL-CIO, National LGBTQ Task Force, SEIU, and others.

Media can RSVP to Scott Simpson at Simpson@civilrights.org. Members of the media from the DC, Richmond, Tidewater, areas are welcome to travel to Roanoke with rally participants.

More information is available at www.VRAforToday.org.

Rally Details:

WHERE: Elmwood Park in Roanoke, Virginia

WHEN: Thursday, June 25 – Pre-Rally Program begins at 12:00pm / Rally begins at 1:00pm

Confirmed Speakers Include [List in Formation]:

  • Wade Henderson, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
  • Arturo Vargas, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund
  • Priscilla Ouchida, Japanese American Citizens’ League (JACL)
  • Cornell William Brooks, NAACP
  • Larry Cohen, CWA
  • Stosh Cotler, Bend the Arc
  • Brenda Hale, Roanoke Branch, NAACP
  • Tanya Clay House, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
  • Rev. William Barber, NAACP
  • Rev. Leslie Malachi, African American Ministers in Action, People for the American Way
  • VA State Senator John Edwards
  • Aaron Mair, Board President, Sierra Club
  • Miles Rapoport, Common Cause
  • Mara Keisling, National Center for Transgender Equality
  • Hector Sanchez, Hispanic Leadership Council/LCLAA
  • Sindy Benevidez, LULAC
  • Terry Ao Minnis, Asian Americans Advancing Justice / AAJC
  • Tefere Gebre, AFL-CIO
  • Rabbi Kathy Cohen, Temple Emmanuel, Roanoke
  • Rabbi Michael Namath, Religious Action Center
  • Janaye Ingraham, National Action Network
  • J. Walter Tejada, Arlington Co. Board Vice Chairman
  • Rebecca Shankman, League of Women Voters of VA and Roanoke, VA
  • Kirk Jones, A. Phillip Randolph Institute (APRI) VA
  • Tom Calhoun, Norfolk Federation of Teachers
  • Dana Jackson, Blue Ridge Independent Living Center, National Council on Independent Living (NCIL)
  • Javontae McNear, VA NAACP Youth and College Division

Republicans applaud the courage of Selma, but will they commit to restoring its legacy?

Last weekend, more than 20 Republican lawmakers traveled to Selma, Ala., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march that spurred the nation to pass the Voting Rights Act and many more took to social media to salute the marchers who braved discrimination and violent brutality to demand their right to vote.

Since the VRA was gutted by the Supreme Court, new efforts to suppress the vote have left our country with the most discriminatory voting landscape in half a century.

“Words alone will not restore the legacy of Selma,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Commemoration requires legislation. We urge all members of Congress who made the trip, and who learned the value of voting rights in this country, to take action.”

Several Republican lawmakers who traveled to Selma expressed their willingness to support or consider supporting legislation to restore the VRA. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio told a reporter that “because of this trip, I will be more interested,” while Sen. Susan Collins of Maine penned a column about her pilgrimage to Selma, and said that the trip will lead her to take a closer look at the Supreme Court’s VRA decision. In the House, Rep. Tom Reed of New York committed to co-sponsoring a VRA fix.

Below is a selection of statements and social media posts from Republican congressional leadership and other members who traveled to Selma. Now that these lawmakers have applauded the bravery that made the law possible, will they, too, commit to working to restore the VRA to honor the legacy of the Selma marchers?

House Speaker John Boehner

Guided by their determination, inspired by their courage, and moved by their call for justice, let us honor their sacrifice by rededicating ourselves to the cause of freedom and equal opportunity for every American,” said Boehner in a statement.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

In a statement, McConnell said “We honor those who marched that day, and we recommit ourselves to the task of building a society in which all men and women are treated equally.”

U.S. Representatives:

Tom Emmer

“It was an honor to stand side-by-side with my colleagues in Selma this weekend. The beauty of the American system is that we are a nation of laws, and everyone deserves equal protection under them,” said Emmer in a statement.

Bradley Byrne


Kevin Yoder


Mike Kelly

“Fifty years ago, a generation of the 20th century’s bravest Americans fought for something they should never have had to fight for: basic freedom and equality before law,” said Mike Kelly.

Gary Palmer

“Men and women of all races stood up, against scorn, intimidation, and violence to uphold the truth of an idea that was laid out by America’s founders in the Declaration of Independence, ‘that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,’” said Gary Palmer.

Martha Roby  


French Hill

“I hope all Americans took a moment this weekend and reflected on the lasting achievements of Rep. Lewis and his fellow Civil Rights leaders,” said Hill.

Curt Lawson  

Cathy McMorris Rodgers

Barbara Comstock

Comstock issued a statement following her visit to Selma, saying that it gave her insight into the trials African Americans went through during the Civil Rights movement.

Will Hurd  

U.S. Senators:

Ted Cruz

“Though injustices still pervade our neighborhoods and cities, we celebrate how far we’ve come. And we remain committed to bending the arc towards justice,” said Cruz in a statement.

Tim Scott

Scott issued a statement in advance of his pilgrimage to Selma, and tweeted his support for restoring the Voting Rights Act:  

Rand Paul


Pat Toomey

Deb Fischer  

Jeff Denham


Roy Blunt

James Lankford  

Jeff Sessions

After Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Selma marchers, Sessions issued a statement, saying, “This dramatic event captured the attention of the nation, led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and was a key event in ending the systematic denial of the right of African-American citizens to vote in many areas.”

Richard Shelby

Richard Burr

Burr also tweeted about awarding the Congressional Medal to the Selma marchers:  

‘Selma’ Star Says Strong VRA Still Needed Today

Director Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” has only been released in select theaters in the United States, but the portrayal of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fight for the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) has already garnered significant attention and prompted conversations about the film’s contemporary relevance.

“Selma” follows the battle for voting rights in 1965, a time when – despite the recently passed Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Jim Crow discrimination was still very real, and African Americans were routinely denied the right to vote through poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation. The film centers on the setbacks, violence, and intimidation that civil rights activists faced in their demonstrations and during their historic march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery – efforts that ultimately resulted in the passage of the VRA.

Although King and civil rights advocates were successful in pushing for federal legislation to protect the right to vote, the battle for voting rights is not over. In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted crucial protections of the VRA in Shelby County v. Holder, some of the very same voting protections for which King and other activists fought so hard. Since the Shelby decision, many state legislatures have passed discriminatory voting restrictions, such as restrictive voter ID laws and the elimination of early voting.

In a recent interview with the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, “Selma” star David Oyelowo, who plays King, discussed the film’s relevance to today’s attacks on the fundamental right to vote, saying, “the lie, again, that’s being told is that the reason to take Section 5 out of the Voting Rights Act, which was won during this campaign, is because the country has changed so much that you no longer need federal rules to dictate what certain states can and cannot have by way of how you can vote. Well you only have to watch this film and juxtapose it with Ferguson to see that yes, things have changed, but not that much, and certainly not enough to warrant changing the Voting Rights Act.”

Oyelowo reminds us that just two hours after Shelby, Texas moved to enact voting restrictions that previously were blocked under the VRA, saying, “That tells you that there are people waiting in the wings for 50 years to bring back things that had been fought, died for.”

Watch Oyelowo’s interview below.