A year ago today, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court dealt a huge blow to voting rights. The Voting Rights Act Amendment is at the center of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today and Congress has the potential to reverse the damage rendered by the Shelby decision. If Congress votes to pass the VRAA before going into recess (and in advance of 2014’s midterm elections), it would restore the critical voter protection that people of color saw jeopardized in Shelby a year ago.
The Shelby verdict jettisoned the piece of the Voting Rights Act designed specifically to protect the voting rights of the most vulnerable.
Further cementing the current bench’s questionable democratic jurisprudence, the Shelby verdict jettisoned the piece of the Voting Rights Act designed specifically to protect the voting rights of the most vulnerable. By striking down the formula for designating the jurisdictions that had to obtain preclearance from the federal government before changing voting laws, the Court eviscerated Section 5, considered by many to be the heart of the VRA.
Gutting the VRA opened the floodgates to bolder, more egregious voter restrictions. North Carolina is just one example of a state emboldened by the Shelby decision, moving on the same day as the ruling to pass a voting law requiring state-issued IDs, restricting early voting, and ending same-day registration—all mandates that deleteriously impact the turnout of people of color at the polls. The Supreme Court’s decision gave counties and jurisdictions with histories of voting discrimination free reign to suppress the voters most in need of protection at the polls.
A sliver of hope remains yet. The Court’s ruling killed the VRA’s formula—not the actual preclearance provision. That means with a little resuscitation from Congress—establishing new formulas—the law can march on. Today, elected officials are crossing the aisle and bringing the Voting Rights Act back to the table for some much-needed CPR. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) are two of Congress’ biggest proponents of an update to the VRA.
Voting rights are not a matter of political tactics. Voting rights are a matter of the sanctity of American democracy. Protecting the right to vote should be, and has always been, bipartisan. Congress has an opportunity to make a clear choice: does it support equal rights, and a fair voting system, or not? A year since Shelby, Congress should join with the thousands of Americans who have signed petitions by Demos and others in support of voting rights. The VRAA can play a pivotal role in protecting those rights.
If Congress does not restore the Voting Rights Act to what it was designed to do, it will undermine the hard-won victories of Freedom Summer. Congress’ record of voting on the VRA has been overwhelmingly bipartisan in the past—there’s no reason why it should be any different now. Congress must act, and act soon, to restore the critical protections of the VRA.