Today marks the 48th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). This landmark legislation, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, secured and protected the right to suffrage for millions of Americans who were previously disenfranchised. After years of Jim Crow era laws, beatings, deaths, and being denied their most basic rights as citizens, the VRA protected all Americans by prohibiting states and localities from imposing onerous restrictions and requirements on people’s ability to cast their ballot.
Under the VRA, states with a history of discriminatory practices at the polls were required to obtain approval from the Department of Justice for any changes to electoral law. This process came to be known as pre-clearance. The VRA has been reauthorized many times by Congress, always on a bipartisan basis, most recently in 2006, by a vote of 390-33 in the House and unanimous consent in the Senate.
But a major, debilitating blow was struck against the VRA by the Supreme Court this summer. On June 25, significant portions of the VRA were undermined in the 5-4 decision of Shelby County v. Holder. The Court held that the formula in Section 4(b) of the VRA, used to determine which states must adhere to the pre-clearance requirement, was outdated and therefore imposed an unconstitutional burden on covered jurisdictions. While the Court stopped short of overturning the entirety of the VRA, it left it to Congress to restore Section 4(b) in line with their decision. Given Congress’ current dysfunction and high level of partisanship, it’s hard to see how any decision on this issue can be reached any time in the near future.
Without the formula in Section 4(b) to guide the pre-clearance process, challenges to discriminatory laws will become much more difficult and expensive, particularly at the local level, where both media scrutiny and legal resources are less concentrated. The pre-clearance process forced covered jurisdictions to cover those costs, as the people affected may not have the resources to bring a disenfranchisement lawsuit.
In the last four years, 37 states, including the states of Alabama, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, and Virginia, all states included in the original Section 4(b) formula, have approved or actively considered restrictive voter access laws attempting, and succeeding in many cases, to disenfranchise legal voters, the disproportionate number of whom are low-income, minority, elderly, as well as residents who may face discriminatory scrutiny because they may be Hispanic, speak with an accent, or have difficulty speaking English.
These laws are “solutions in search of a problem” and affect the most vulnerable among us. When coupled with the Shelby decision undermining the preclearance requirement of the VRA, they represent a significant challenge to our tradition of universal suffrage.
With rare exception, voting in this country was originally extended to only white, male landowners. Slow progress throughout the early 20th Century and a tremendously active civil rights movement brought us to the summer of 1965 and the signing of the VRA. Congress must restore this law as it was originally intended, and I will continue pushing for action.