A Time for Action

This week the New York Times published a story that powerfully captured why in 2016, we still need a strong Voting Rights Act.

In Sparta, Georgia more than 180 African-American citizens were confronted by law enforcement officers that were dispatched by the local election board. These citizens, all American voters, were told they had to appear in person in order to prove they were a resident and could vote in upcoming elections.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Local governments across the United States have engaged in practices that intimidate potential voters and diminish turnout. We’ve heard the stories about voter ID laws (requiring voters to purchase expensive state-issued identification cards) and states curtailing early voting periods.

These practices have gotten more attention recently as an Appeals Court raised real concerns regarding voter restrictions in North Carolina. Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote, “The new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision” and “impose cures for problems that did not exist. Thus the asserted justifications cannot and do not conceal the State’s true motivation.”

This is unacceptable. We should be making it easier for American citizens to have their voices heard in our elections, not harder.

This all started with one of the most consequential Supreme Court decisions of recent years. In 2013, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act. The court struck down a section of the law specifically designed to ensure that when state and local governments with a history of discrimination are changing their voting laws, they aren’t disenfranchising voters.

At the time, Chief Justice John Roberts said that the key protections they did away with were “extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem.” I would argue they were extraordinarily successful. From 1982 to 2006, the Voting Rights Act successfully blocked more than 700 discriminatory voting changes throughout our nation. Recent events like the ones described above show that those types of protections are still needed today.

On what would have been the 51st anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, folks across the nation will be going to the polls without the key protections it offered. That’s not right. As the New York Times pointed out, states that were once being monitored by the Justice Department are up to electioneering tricks once again. Counties in Florida, North Carolina, and Alabama with large minority districts have closed or moved polling places.

And it still matters when we’ve seen the state of Alabama pass a law establishing a voucher test, requiring that voters be verified by two poll workers in order for them to vote without a government-issued ID. Under that law, a 92-year-old woman was turned away from the polls, told that her public housing ID did not satisfy the state’s requirement.

Just last decade, a town in Mississippi canceled a municipal election rather than allow an African-American majority on the city council. Our nation has made progress but the stain of racism still remains. We have work to do to fix it. We need strong measures to help.

It’s time for Congress to take up and pass legislation that would put teeth back into the Voting Rights Act, address the issue raised by the court, and counter voter disenfranchisement. In 2016 our march is not over. It’s time to act.

This week the New York Times published a story that powerfully captured why in 2016, we still need a strong Voting Rights Act.

In Sparta, Georgia more than 180 African-American citizens were confronted by law enforcement officers that were dispatched by the local election board. These citizens, all American voters, were told they had to appear in person in order to prove they were a resident and could vote in upcoming elections.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Local governments across the United States have engaged in practices that intimidate potential voters and diminish turnout. We’ve heard the stories about voter ID laws (requiring voters to purchase expensive state-issued identification cards) and states curtailing early voting periods.

These practices have gotten more attention recently as an Appeals Court raised real concerns regarding voter restrictions in North Carolina. Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote, “The new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision” and “impose cures for problems that did not exist. Thus the asserted justifications cannot and do not conceal the State’s true motivation.”

This is unacceptable. We should be making it easier for American citizens to have their voices heard in our elections, not harder.

This all started with one of the most consequential Supreme Court decisions of recent years. In 2013, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act. The court struck down a section of the law specifically designed to ensure that when state and local governments with a history of discrimination are changing their voting laws, they aren’t disenfranchising voters.

At the time, Chief Justice John Roberts said that the key protections they did away with were “extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem.” I would argue they were extraordinarily successful. From 1982 to 2006, the Voting Rights Act successfully blocked more than 700 discriminatory voting changes throughout our nation. Recent events like the ones described above show that those types of protections are still needed today.

On what would have been the 51st anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, folks across the nation will be going to the polls without the key protections it offered. That’s not right. As the New York Times pointed out, states that were once being monitored by the Justice Department are up to electioneering tricks once again. Counties in Florida, North Carolina, and Alabama with large minority districts have closed or moved polling places.

And it still matters when we’ve seen the state of Alabama pass a law establishing a voucher test, requiring that voters be verified by two poll workers in order for them to vote without a government-issued ID. Under that law, a 92-year-old woman was turned away from the polls, told that her public housing ID did not satisfy the state’s requirement.

Just last decade, a town in Mississippi canceled a municipal election rather than allow an African-American majority on the city council. Our nation has made progress but the stain of racism still remains. We have work to do to fix it. We need strong measures to help.

It’s time for Congress to take up and pass legislation that would put teeth back into the Voting Rights Act, address the issue raised by the court, and counter voter disenfranchisement. In 2016 our march is not over. It’s time to act.