Voting discrimimation isn't a thing of the past

Posted by Allegra Chapman on January 19, 2015

Thumbnail for the Voter Protections campaign

Republicans aren’t what they used to be.

Take House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) for example. Just yesterday, he notified the press that Congress won’t move to restore the Voting Rights Act because the discrimination the new law seeks to eliminate is “very old,” a thing of the past. The congressman could use a refresher course in American history, or at least a visit from the ghosts of representatives and senators past.

As many recall, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 last year in Shelby County v. Holder to gut a key provision in the Voting Rights Act that for decades required states and jurisdictions with histories of discrimination to submit their proposed voting changes to a federal body for review before implementation. The law had prevented thousands of discriminatory practices, as determined by a federal appeals court or the Department of Justice, from being put into place and disenfranchising eligible Americans.

Despite the law’s effectiveness – and even though Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged in the Shelby Co. v. Holder opinion that racism still pervades – the Court eliminated the most effective process this country has seen for prohibiting discriminatory practices at the polls.

Since Shelby, a number of states and localities have passed laws eliminating reforms that increase turnout and, instead imposing new obstacles to the ballot box. This point is particularly clear with respect to the photo ID laws spreading like wildfire across the country: when obtaining an ID costs $75 to $175, those with less disposable income and transportation – people of color, seniors, students, veterans, and those with disabilities – are shut out of democracy.

As federal appeals Judge Richard Posner recently noted in dissenting from the 7th Circuit’s upholding of Wisconsin’s photo ID law, (later stayed by the Supreme Court) “There is only one motivation for imposing burdens on voting that are ostensibly designed to discourage voter-impersonation fraud, if there is no actual danger of such fraud, and that is to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens.” If Judge Posner – one of the most conservative judges on the appeals bench - sees the discriminatory effect of these new laws, our elected representatives in Congress can’t afford not to respond. The restrictive laws passed in North Carolina, Texas, Ohio, and elsewhere in recent years have depressed turnout by people of color, as noted by the Government Accountability Office. Unless these practices are reined in by an overseeing body, they will surely continue. Indeed, these discriminatory proposals are already popping up as state legislatures across the country convene for 2015.

Rep. Goodlatte also would be well advised to consult with his party colleague, Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner. Sensenbrenner, along with House Democrats and 10 other House Republicans, saw the need last year to restore the Voting Rights Act through legislation with a more modern, and flexible approach, that comports with the Supreme Court’s instructions in Shelby County. It’s the sort of legislation we need to prevent further anti-voter laws from taking hold before the next election.

Goodlatte might also want to review his own record. In 2006, he and most of his Republican colleagues in the House (and every Senate Republican), voted to reauthorize the law. Once it passed both chambers, then-President George W. Bush, also a Republican, thanked congressional members for their work and signed it into law. What a different landscape we see today.

As we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, who dedicated himself to ensuring that all eligible Americans had equal access to the ballot box and an equal say in how this country is run – we ask our Representatives and Senators to revisit the matter. Constituents can tell them about the discrimination that persists in their home states. Rep. Goodlatte need only turn on the television to see the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have been marching to declare that “Black lives matter” and that we can’t tolerate anyone being treated as a second-class citizen.

Our current Congress must follow the example of its predecessors and as a matter of morality and not just politics as usual, reinvigorate the Voting Rights Act. “For this Nation to remain true to its principles, we cannot allow any American’s vote to be denied, diluted, ore defiled. The right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished,” a famous American once declared. Those words could very well have come from Dr. King. But they didn’t – they were Ronald Reagan’s.

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Voting and Elections

Tags: Voting Rights

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