Gutting of the Voting Rights Act Derails American Democracy

Last Wednesday I attended a joint congressional briefing hosted by the ACLU and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights titled “The State of Voting Rights in 2016.” This meeting was conducted just before the third anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision striking down the Voting Rights Act’s core.

I was both amazed and angered by the information shared by Nancy Zirkin, executive VP of Policy at the Leadership Conference, Susan Herman, president of the ACLU, and Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. For anyone who’s in that “both political parties are the same” camp, they need look no further than the history and present state of voter disenfranchisement to depart from that stance.

Three years ago the US Supreme Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in its Shelby v. Holder decision, a piece of legislation specifically intended to ban racial discrimination in voting. Since its introduction in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, Republicans have snarled at the Voting Rights Act’s existence. This makes sense when you consider that the type of policies they champion typically run counter to the interests of racial minorities and other marginalized groups. A fully intact VRA impedes the ability of states to pass blatantly suppressive voting laws.

The gutting of Section 5 of the VRA changed that. The Leadership Conference published “Warning Signs: the Potential Impact of Shelby County v. Holder on the 2016 General Election,” which addresses the significance of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. It states:

Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, jurisdictions with a demonstrated record of racial discrimination in voting are required to submit all proposed voting changes to the US Department of Justice or the US District Court in DC for “preclearance” in advance of implementation.

Preclearance is crucial because it ensures that no new voting law or practice (i.e., closing or moving polling places), would be implemented in a place with a history of racial discrimination in their voting practices unless that law was scrutinized and determined not to disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters.

The Shelby decision invalidated this process of preclearance. And it’s no secret why this happened.

In 2008, people of color represented a quarter of the nation’s eligible voters for the first time in our nation’s history. This coalition of voters was largely responsible for putting Barack Obama in the White House.

And then, all of a sudden and as if by coincidence, in 2011 and 2012 nineteen states passed twenty-five laws that made it harder to register to vote, and these laws appear surgically targeted at the modes of participation that are disproportionally used by these emerging segments of the electorate.

There are many egregious acts of voter discrimination the VRA prevented in the past. Without federal protection, we will continue to see voter suppression of historically disenfranchised groups so that those in power can maintain their social, economic, and political social position without just, democratic due process.

Changes to early voting, same-day registration, and voter ID laws have become common practice to restrict the voting participation of people with lower income and people of color, said Nancy Zirkin. Even before the Shelby decision, Republicans were on a crusade to impede the rights of those most likely to vote against them. This distinctly Republican tendency to taint and manipulate the political process can also be seen in racial gerrymandering. Post-Shelby, millions of minority voters have been subjected to barriers that infringe on their right to vote. And again, lawmakers pushing for these deceptive and prejudicial efforts are overwhelmingly Republican.

Sadly, the political disenfranchisement of non-whites is a time-honored tradition that dates back to the repeal of the Federal Election Law in 1874 which adversely impacted Black voters. Both the ACLU and the Leadership Conference advocate for the passing of the Voting Rights Advancement Act in order to guarantee full voter protections against modern strategies to exempt certain marginalized groups from voting. Unsurprisingly, Republican congressional leadership is obstructing consideration of such progress, allowing voter discrimination to continue unchecked.

It’s imperative we address these blatant and understated discrepancies in our voting system. The Advancement Act would be a directive that provides key protections against voting discrimination. If you are interested in learning more or want to get involved, please review the action measures that are being taken by the Learning Conference and the ACLU on this issue.

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