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Rally on the Two-Year Anniversary of Shelby: Congress Must Restore the VRA

Allie Boldt

On Thursday, June 25, Demos will join hundreds of concerned Americans in a rally for voting rights in Roanoke, Virginia, to mark the 2nd anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act. That decision struck down the “coverage formula” that was “designed to prevent discrimination in voting by requiring all state and local governments with a history of voting discrimination to get approval from the federal government before making any changes to their voting laws or procedures, no matter how small.” Congress can restore these “preclearance” provisions by amending the coverage formula.

Since it was passed nearly 50 years ago, the Voting Rights Act has helped transform our nation into a more equal democracy. It ended literacy tests, poll taxes, and other tactics designed to keep minority voters away from the ballot box. In the 21st century, the preclearance provisions were an important tool to fight more discrete—but no less pernicious—methods of voting discrimination like inequitable redistricting plans, restrictive voter ID laws, and restriction of early voting opportunities in jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination.

The Shelby decision opened the door to voter discrimination, not just in the jurisdictions previously covered by the preclearance provisions, but across the country. In a statement to MSNBC, Janai Nelson, a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, explained:

“It sent a message that these sorts of protections are not as valued by the courts as they should be, and I think created an invitation for many of the discriminatory tactics that we see proliferating throughout the country.”

This resurgence of laws to increase barriers to voting threatens our democracy. The trend is particularly troubling in light of the role that racism continues to play in our democracy and broader society: of police brutality and violence against people of color, underrepresentation of people of color, and concentration of political power in an overwhelmingly white “donor class.”

Despite public outcry over the Shelby decision and a bipartisan effort to restore the VRA, congressional leadership has decided to ignore voter discrimination and the will of the American people. When we join civil rights and voting advocates in Roanoke on June 25, we will be rallying in Congressman Bob Goodlatte’s district. As Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Goodlatte has refused to hold a hearing to amend the VRA and restore the preclearance provisions.  

We are rallying in Roanoke to send a message to Congress that its inaction is unacceptable. Unless Congress acts, voters in 2016 will face the first presidential election in 50 years where they will lack crucial protections in federal law to combat racial discrimination in voting.  This has real consequences for voters nationwide and Virginians in particular—who already live under racially gerrymandered districts and could face even greater barriers as a presidential swing state. 

The VRA and its reauthorizations were passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities and signed by presidents of both parties, including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. By failing to restore the vital protections of the VRA, today’s Congress has undermined the fundamental right embedded in our Constitution and our democracy.

Earlier this year, members of Congress from both parties traveled to Selma to honor the marchers who experienced horrific violence and brutality to secure the right to vote. Lawmakers paid tribute to the marchers’ courage, but have failed to restore the voting protections for which brave Americans lost their lives. When Congress commemorates the 50th Anniversary of the VRA in this August, we expect them to do so with a fully restored Voting Rights Act in place.