Facing the presidential election without a full Voting Rights Act

Why Asian Americans need the full protections of the Voting Rights Act

by Terry Ao Minnis

As we approach the third anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder that eviscerated the heart of the Voting Rights Act , it is clear how devastating an impact this decision has been on our country’s ability to protect our most vulnerable voters, particularly those of color, against discrimination at the polls. We are seeing states engaging in all types of mischief and misconduct to suppress the vote and political clout of particular groups of voters — particularly from those states previously required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to secure approval from the U.S. Department of Justice for voting changes.

To make matters worse, not only is this discrimination happening in many different jurisdictions on a consistent basis, leadership in Congress is failing to address this current ongoing problem, despite the Chief Justice’s invitation to do so. In failing to act, Congressional leadership is standing in the way of justice and the will of the people. Both the Senate and House Judiciary Committees are refusing to hold hearings on restoring the Voting Rights Act, despite the fact that there are currently two bi-partisan bills currently introduced in Congress that would seek to remedy the destructive decision in Shelby County. The Chairman’s action, or rather inaction, is keeping the nation at a standstill, even though the people are in favor of the Voting Rights Act and restoring it to its full protection.

And we know why this is so necessary. This year, we face the first presidential election without the full force of the Voting Rights Act since its inception in 1965. In the absence of that preclearance protection, we have seen states pull all types of shenanigans to make voting more difficult, especially for communities of color. Seventeen states which were previously covered in full or in part by Section 5, including Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, will have new voting restrictions consisting of strict photo ID requirements, early voting cutbacks and registration restrictions, in place for the first time in a presidential election in 2016. These are just the newest restrictions in a broader voter suppression movement that began after the 2010 elections: in the past six years, nearly half of all states have introduced and adopted new voter restrictions. Had the Shelby County decision not gutted the Voting Rights Act, many of these restrictions would have been prevented from going into effect, and voters would not be facing more barriers to voting.

Both the Senate and House Judiciary Committees’ unwillingness to engage in the process of legislating to fix the Voting Rights Act leaves Asian American communities vulnerable. Asian American communities continue to grow and move to nontraditional cities and areas of the country, including previously-covered Section 5 jurisdictions in the South. Five of the states covered in their entirety and another four states covered partially by Section 5 are among the top 20 states with the fastest-growing Asian American populations. We also know that when a minority group moves into an area, or when its growth outpaces that of the general population, reactions to that influx of “outsiders” tends to result in racial tension. Discrimination tends to increase, creating an environment of fear and resentment toward Asian Americans, which jeopardizes their ability to exercise their right to vote free of harassment or unfair treatment. Asian Americans are potential swing voters and as they become numerous enough to make the difference in certain races, they will face new, more aggressive tactics to minimize their political impact. Section 5 protections are needed more than ever.

As a growing population across the country, with an increased political voice, we must have our voice heard in the democratic process. We will not be quiet about any kind of obstructionism from leadership, and we will keep pushing for Congress to hold hearings to #RestoretheVRA.

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