On the Hill: VRAA Reintroduced

This year’s highly contested presidential election was a testament to the importance of each citizen’s vote. Across the country, state election results were decided by single-digit percentage points, exemplifying the importance and value of voting.

Unfortunately, some of our fellow citizens’ right to vote has been attacked throughout the last decade by targeted legislative efforts that have resulted in widespread disenfranchisement. In the 2016 election alone, ten states introduced voter suppression laws for the first time, which massively impacted the election as a whole. North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Florida were all crucial states in this election and had introduced various voter suppression laws prior to November 8, 2016.

The United States sadly has a history of limiting citizens’ right to vote for discriminatory or political purposes. In the Jim Crow era, African Americans and other minorities were widely discriminated against in the voting process as they often faced poll taxes, fewer voting stations in black neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods, and outright violence against minority communities that attempted to vote.

Thankfully, many of these practices and several others were made illegal by the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, which also granted the federal government oversight of certain localities that had a history of discriminatory voting policies. This meant that the federal government was allowed to block any voting laws and/or policies that were deemed to be discriminatory to people in these areas. This practice was called pre-clearance.

The twenty-first-century push for voter disenfranchisement began in 2013, when the Shelby County v. Holder decision effectively neutered the Voting Rights Act by undoing this pre-clearance requirement. The court maintained that the formula used to determine which states and localities were subject to pre-clearance was outdated.

As a direct result of Shelby County v. Holder, discriminatory policies designed to discourage minority communities from participating in elections are being introduced across the country. Additionally, numerous voter ID and anti-voter fraud laws have been introduced in different states, despite there being no evidence of rampant voter fraud in US elections. Therefore these laws needlessly complicate the voting process in order to disenfranchise minority communities.

Fortunately, several members of Congress decided to stand up for voting rights for all US citizens by supporting the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2017 (VRAA), also known as H.R. 3239. This bill, introduced by Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and John Conyers (D-MI), has seventy-two co-sponsors, including sixty-five Democrats and seven Republicans.

The purpose of the VRAA is to amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by revising the criteria that determined which specific states and localities are subject to the Voting Rights Act of 1965’s pre-clearance requirement, with updated language that is consistent with the Shelby v. Holder ruling.

The VRAA would effectively restore the ability of the federal government to ensure states and localities are not enacting voter suppression laws which illegally disenfranchise potential voters. It would also honor the intent of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder.

Voter suppression, no matter what form it may take, poses a significant threat to our nation’s democratic order when it unjustly disenfranchises any voter, which is why the American Humanist Association is proud to support the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2017 and will urge Congress to pass the bill and President Trump to sign it in to law.