The threat from within -- the ironic challenge to the Voting Rights Act (opinion from U.S. Rep. Terri A. Sewell)
After almost 50 years of expanding and protecting voting rights, a new threat comes from an unlikely place – the U.S. Supreme Court.
On Wednesday, the justices heard oral arguments in Shelby County, AL v. Holder, a case that will decide the survival of preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that require federal oversight of voting practices in 16 covered states including Alabama.
The Voting Rights Act, which was passed as result of the Selma to Montgomery march, provides legal protections for individuals, primarily minorities, in states with histories of discriminatory voting practices. Since its passage in 1965, the act has been critical in ensuring that millions of our nation’s minority citizens are guaranteed the right to vote.
I feel compelled to write this essay because I am deeply concerned about the erosion of voting rights that sadly still exist in our state and in this nation. Perhaps the biggest irony is that the current threat to this legislation comes from the very state (Alabama) that was the impetus for its passage almost 50 years ago.
In the lawsuit, Shelby County questions whether the preclearance requirement is still necessary to curb actions that would disenfranchise the vote. They argue that the racial and political biases that once existed have subsided, and that the suppression of the minority by the majority is only relevant in a historical context.
Unfortunately, we don’t have to look far to see evidence to the contrary. The actions of state legislatures across this nation prior to the 2012 elections tell a compelling story. Of the nine states that are currently required to obtain preclearance from the federal government, six successfully passed restrictive voting legislation leading up to the 2012 presidential election, including Alabama.
During its first year in power, our Republican-controlled state Legislature passed a law requiring a photo ID to cast a ballot, in spite of the fact that such a mandate disportionately affects minorities, seniors and the disabled who are less likely to have such identification.
This is exactly the kind of discriminatory voting efforts that the Voting Rights Act protects against by requiring covered jurisdictions to obtain “preclearance” or federal approval for proposed changes to election laws. The act requires the federal government to determine whether proposed voter ID law has a discriminatory effect and does not require a finding of discriminatory intent. Thus, the overwhelming evidence that thousands of minorities will have difficulty meeting this voting prerequisite is cause enough for Alabama’s new voter ID law to come under scrutiny.
Now more than ever, the legal protections that ensure the participation of minorities are under attack. With state voter identification laws, discriminatory redistricting practices and efforts to limit voting hours, there still exists a need to prevent voter disenfranchisement and suppression. Prior to the 2012 presidential election, more than 180 restrictive bills were introduced in state legislatures across the country signifying the overwhelming need for federal oversight.
Congress acknowledged this unfortunate but ongoing necessity when it overwhelmingly reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006 after more than 21 hearings and over 15,000 pages of supporting evidence. The act was reauthorized through 2031 with an almost unanimous vote -- 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate. Those members of Congress, Democratic and Republican, clearly believed that the hundreds of cases of apparent voter discrimination by states and municipalities necessitated federal oversight and preclearance.
Today, we still face real threats from individuals and institutions that are seeking to both suppress voter turnout and deny individuals the right to vote. For some, what should be a routine exercise of citizenship has become a struggle. Without the proper oversight in place, the elderly, the poor and those living in rural communities could all be impacted.
I agree with those that say we have made great progress. We have come a long way since civil rights leaders confronted state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but now is not the time to abandon the safeguards that made progress possible.
Now more than ever we need a strong Voting Rights Act. I seriously question the sustainability of our democracy without it.