The Voting Rights Act:

50 years on and under siege

The right to vote is the most fundamental right of citizenship in our democracy. Yet for most of our nation’s history, too many of our citizens, and particularly African-Americans, were denied this most basic right, especially in the deep South.

Fifty years ago today, our nation took a momentous step toward correcting that injustice when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act.

I fear, however, that recent developments threaten the act’s basic protections and, on this anniversary, Congress must dedicate itself to restoring those protections.

Before the Voting Rights Act, the state of voting rights in the deep South was abysmal. In the mid-1950s — more than 80 years after adoption of the 15th Amendment, which prohibits states from denying citizens the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” and gives Congress the power to enforce this prohibition — only one in four eligible African-American voters in the South was registered.

This low number was the result of decades of backlash against political participation by blacks beginning after the Civil War. Such backlash included political violence by the Ku Klux Klan and others, who kept black voters away from the polls with guns, whips and lynchings.

After Reconstruction, Southern states enacted numerous measures to disenfranchise black voters, as part of what came to be known as Jim Crow. These measures included poll taxes, literacy tests, the disqualification of convicts and many other measures designed to block African-Americans from voting. As a practical matter, these tactics, combined with Congress’ inaction, denied African-Americans the right to vote, notwithstanding the 15th Amendment’s guarantee of equal voting rights.

After almost a century, and with the substantial efforts of the civil rights movement, Congress finally asserted its 15th Amendment authority and passed the Voting Rights Act. One of the Act’s key features was its pre-clearance requirement. Under this requirement, certain jurisdictions, predominantly in the deep South, that had a history of discriminatory voting measures were required to obtain the approval of the Justice Department or a three-judge panel in federal court for any proposed changes to voting practices or procedures.

The pre-clearance requirement was crucial to allowing vigorous and effective enforcement of the act’s guarantee of equal voting rights. With its robust pre-clearance requirement, the act had a dramatically positive effect on black voter registration in the South, which increased to 62 percent just three years after the Act became law.

But two years ago, the Supreme Court effectively gutted the act’s pre-clearance requirement, notwithstanding Congress’s factual findings in 2006 that the act, including its pre-clearance provision, was still needed in the face of continuing discrimination by some states against minority voters. The court’s majority claimed that there was no evidence to support Congress’s finding of continuing discrimination in voting in these states.

In response to the court’s decision, and under Republican control, states that had been subject to the act’s pre-clearance requirement wasted no time in pursuing voting restrictions that could once again undermine African-Americans’ voting rights. These measures include voter identification requirements, restriction or elimination of early voting or same-day registration and bans on ex-offenders from voting, all of which make it disproportionately harder for racial and ethnic minorities to vote. In short, these measures have a strong whiff of the Jim Crow era.

In the absence of the pre-clearance requirement, it will be extremely difficult, at best, to challenge all of these new voting restrictions under what is left of the Voting Rights Act. The result will be that many restrictions that undermine equal voting rights will simply go unchallenged.

The Supreme Court was wrong to undermine the Voting Rights Act and Congress needs to fix it.

I am a co-sponsor of two bills that would restore the Voting Rights Act to its full effectiveness.

There is no better way for Congress to commemorate the Act’s 50th anniversary than to pass these bills and stay true to the Act’s purpose of ensuring equal voting rights for all.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, represents Tennessee’s Ninth Congressional District. This column originally appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

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