Looking Back to Move Forward on the Voting Rights Act

Looking Back to Move Forward on the Voting Rights Act

This Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when 600 peaceful marchers, attempting to walk from Selma to Montgomery to protest the denial of voting rights to African-Americans, were attacked by police with tear gas and clubs.

This Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when 600 peaceful marchers, attempting to walk from Selma to Montgomery to protest the denial of voting rights to African-Americans, were attacked by police with tear gas and clubs. As we reflect on that history, and look forward to the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 this summer, we pause to honor the contributions the civil rights movement made to our country’s progress and recommit ourselves to the cause of racial and economic justice. 

Some say the movement’s work is done. Perhaps they can’t see the continued evidence of discrimination. They overstate the nation’s progress. 

Some who hold the power to protect Selma’s legacy – including representatives in Congress like House Judiciary Chair Bob Goodlatte, R-VA, (R-VA) – argue that discrimination in voting is a thing of the past.

But the last several years have reminded us that, as far as this country has come since the 1960s, much still needs to be done to meet the promise of a vital and inclusive democracy.  

Our right to vote has always been central to our role as citizens, and – sadly — efforts to block eligible voters from the ballot box are not a thing of the past. 

Americans and elected representatives alike have known this for years, as shown by the overwhelming bipartisan support for reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 1970, ’75, ’82, and as recently as 2006.

The evidence of the law’s role in thwarting discriminatory practices before Congress at each re-authorization was voluminous. 

At its most recent hearings – in 2006 – Congress heard evidence: that in one Mississippi jurisdiction with growing minority populations, an all-white board canceled voting on the eve of the election, as people of color were poised to elect candidates of choice; that numerous counties failed to provide translations and interpreters to Americans still learning English (despite the law requiring otherwise); and that poll workers in several jurisdictions turned African-American voters away for lack of proper identification but allowed whites in similar straits to vote.

Those incidents, and plenty more also documented at the hearings, took place after 2000 — not in the 1960s. Some persisted in blatant violation of the Voting Rights Act; others were stopped in their tracks by the law’s requirement that jurisdictions with a history of discrimination obtain federal “preclearance” before changing their voting laws or practices (Section 5).

Five justices of the Supreme Court ignored this evidence in 2013 and gutted the provision that once required covered jurisdictions to submit proposed voting changes to federal authorities before implementation. Now, nine states and dozens of localities in six other states, once fully covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, have permission to return to the bad old days, albeit perhaps more subtly.

After Shelby Co v Holder, a number of once-covered states tore down reforms that benefitted working class Americans, including people of color, students, and those with disabilities. Politicians passed laws to limit (or entirely eliminate) Election Day registration opportunities, early voting days and even hours at the polls, and imposed barriers to entry like requiring very specific forms of photo ID that many people lack. Some new ID rules were so onerous and so obviously targeted at people of color that even federal Judge Richard Posner, a prominent conservative who once defended voter ID, denounced them as a means to disenfranchise voters.

The Voting Rights Act lived on for nearly 50 years because it worked; we need it now not only in the previously covered jurisdictions but also as a means to protect voters everywhere. Because of Section 5, thousands of proposed voting changes with either a discriminatory purpose or impact were thwarted from the get-go, ensuring that millions of eligible voters could cast ballots.

We lost a lot in the Shelby decision. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her dissent in Shelby, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” 

We are not powerless in this fight to regain what was lost. For decades, the VRA received bipartisan support – and it can again. 

After Members of Congress return next week from commemorating what so many fought – and died for — in Selma, they must get to work to revitalize this law.

As NAACP President (and member of Common Cause’s National Governing Board) Cornell Brooks said, it “is perversely ironic to commemorate the past without demonstrating the courage of that past in the present. In other words, we can’t really give gold medals to those who marched from Selma to Montgomery without giving a committee vote to the legislation that protects the right to vote today.”

The state of our nation requires that eligible voters – all eligible voters – show up at the polls to help dictate how we move forward – with our economy, our national welfare, and our place in the world. Too much is at stake to neglect the voices of the many.

Urge your lawmakers to fix the Voting Rights Act today!