Saturday, August 6, marks the 51st anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and with the 2016 general election less the 100 days away, voter discrimination is once again flourishing. We urge you to mark this anniversary by highlighting the need for Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act as soon as possible.
Since the Supreme Court gutted the VRA in 2013, states and cities have enacted a tidal wave of voter discrimination laws intended to restrict the right to vote for people of color, people with disabilities, students and others.
Recent court victories turning back a few of these laws have proven that that these efforts are widespread, require massive investments of time and money to litigate, and intentionally discriminate against voters of color. It took years of litigation to strike down intentionally discriminatory laws, meaning countless voters were denied the right to cast ballots in the 2014 mid-term election and in this year’s presidential primary – and there’s no way to get those votes back.
- In North Carolina, a court recently found that the state targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision” when it enacted a monster voter discrimination law passed just weeks after Shelby County v. Holder.
- In Texas, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit found the state’s voter ID law violates what remains of the VRA because it discriminates against Black and Latino voters. This was the fourth federal court to reach that conclusion.
- In Michigan, a federal court overturned a ban on straight-ticket voting saying that it disproportionately targeted African-American voters and would lead to longer lines.
- In Wisconsin, a federal judge stuck down part of the state’s voting law because it “intentionally discriminates on the basis of race.”
- In North Dakota, a federal judge blocked the state’s strict voter ID law as unconstitutional because it placed “substantial and disproportionate burdens” on Native American voters.
- In Kansas, a state judge blocked a state administrative rule that would have disqualified the votes of more than 17,000 Kansans who registered without providing proof of citizenship. The judge’s ruling came just days before a primary election.
The arduous process that went into getting these laws struck down was exactly what the VRA was designed to prevent. For every statewide law that can be litigated for years, there are countless city, county, and school board changes to voting districts, precinct locations, and new barriers to registering and voting that will never be litigated in court.
With less than 100 days until the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, bipartisan bills to restore the law continue to languish in the House and Senate Judiciary Committees – and states and jurisdictions once covered by VRA preclearance have bullishly passed laws that were once blocked, or would have been blocked before Shelby.
As documented in the recent report, Warning Signs, rollbacks in voting rights in several swing states once covered by VRA preclearance could determine the outcome of 84 Electoral College votes and control of the Senate. The temptation to shave points off the participation rate of voters of color has proven too great to resist. Since Shelby, all five of these states – North Carolina, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Virginia – have engaged in deceptive and sophisticated efforts to disenfranchise voters that will have an impact on the 2016 election.
And in an especially frightening move last month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that its deployment of election observers would be “severely curtailed” because of Shelby. The federal observer program’s significant role – to detect discrimination and intimidation at the polls – is especially needed given that racially and religiously bigoted rhetoric is flourishing in this election.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act, introduced in both chambers of Congress in June 2015, has bipartisan support in the Senate. The Voting Rights Amendment Act, introduced in the House in February 2015, has bipartisan support as well. With Republicans in control of both chambers during the 114th session of Congress, neither bill has received even a hearing to examine evidence of discrimination. Republican chairs of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees – Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and Chuck Grassley of Iowa – are in charge of scheduling hearings, but have chosen not to.
Goodlatte and Grassley both voted to reauthorize the VRA just 10 years ago, when the House voted 390-33 and the Senate voted 98-0 to extend the law for an additional 25 years. So did Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. President George W. Bush signed the reauthorization in July 2006. In fact, each time the law has been reauthorized, it’s been by a Republican president (Nixon, Ford, and Reagan signed reauthorizations before Bush).
This stands in stark contrast to today, when most Republican lawmakers don’t just refuse to take legislative action – they refuse to admit voting discrimination exists in the first place. It’s time for Congress to return to its bipartisan tradition of protecting the right to vote for all eligible Americans.