Voting Rights Remain Far From Secure

Written by Sam Genova, Common Cause intern, on June 29, 2017


Advancing voting rights, once a bipartisan objective, has fallen victim to intense partisan gridlock following the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, a ruling that effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA).

The VRA was introduced at the height of the civil rights era. It was meant to combat our nation’s long history of racism by protecting every citizen’s right to participate in our democracy. It was passed with little contention in the House and Senate, and was very effective in combatting discriminatory voting practices before the Shelby County ruling.

As recently as 2006, President George W. Bush signed a bill reauthorizing the law with sweeping bipartisan support; the Senate passed the legislation unanimously and the House vote was nearly unanimous. In a statement, the president promised to “vigorously enforce the provisions of this law, and… defend it in court.”

Recently though, partisanship has infected attempts to strengthen voting rights. The Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA), introduced in 2015 to patch holes left from the Shelby County decision, was denied a hearing and a floor vote by the House’s Republican majority.

A 2015 statement by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-VA, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, sought to explain the decision: “We are certainly willing to look at any new evidence of discrimination if there is a need to take any measures. But at this point in time, we have not seen that, and therefore no changes have been made since the Supreme Court decision.” This statement came after the 2015 bill was killed in Goodlatte’s committee.

But there is evidence of discrimination. Only three years later, there are clear instances of discriminatory voting practices that would have been barred under the provisions now gutted from the original VRA. Strict voter ID laws, voter database purges, and shorter registration windows have severely impeded voting among minority populations. These effects are already visible on the local, state, and national level.

If Rep. Goodlatte doesn’t see proof of discrimination, maybe it’s because he refuses to look. In South Carolina, to cite just one among many examples, a 2013 law requiring voters to show ID at the polls and banning Election Day registration was struck down in the courts three years after it passed. This law unfairly discriminated against racial minorities and severely hampered voting in 2014 and 2016. Its passage coincided with Shelby County, perhaps reflecting an emboldened effort to suppress voters in the wake of the decision.

Reintroduced last week to mark the third anniversary of the Shelby County decision, the VRAA would restore strong federal oversight to ensure voting rights.  Denying voters their constitutional rights for partisan reasons is cowardly and discriminatory. A public hearing on issues surrounding the VRAA is the least Goodlatte can do. He and others who impede the progress of this bill must be held accountable.

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Office: Common Cause National, Common Cause South Carolina

Issues: Voting and Elections

Tags: Voting Rights

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