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June 24, 2016 0

Three Years After Shelby County, Voters Are Really Getting Soaked

This week­end marks the third anniver­sary of Shelby County v. Holder, in which the Supreme Court, by a  nar­row 5–4 mar­gin, struck down key rain umbrellapro­tec­tions of the land­mark Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), essen­tially gut­ting the heart of the nation’s most impor­tant and effec­tive civil rights law.  We were reminded of the dan­ger­ous strug­gles to enact this law when, ear­lier this week, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice closed its inves­ti­ga­tion into the mur­ders of three civil rights work­ers (Andrew Good­man, Michael Schw­erner, and James Chaney) killed by the Klan as they were work­ing to reg­is­ter vot­ers in Mis­sis­sippi in June, 1964.

Sec­tion 5 of the VRA requires that, in cer­tain juris­dic­tions with a his­tory of dis­crim­i­na­tory vot­ing prac­tices, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment must approve any changes in elec­tion laws, such as changes in polling site loca­tions and redraw­ing con­gres­sional dis­trict lines.  The juris­dic­tions that were required to sub­mit changes were deter­mined by a for­mula based on a his­tory of dis­crim­i­na­tory vot­ing prac­tices. The Court held this for­mula uncon­sti­tu­tional, say­ing that the for­mula was out of date.  In doing so, the Court sub­sti­tuted its views for Congress’s own very exten­sive hear­ings and find­ings con­ducted in 2006 when Con­gress almost unan­i­mously voted to reau­tho­rize the VRA for another 25 years. In Shelby County, the Court specif­i­cally invited Con­gress to cre­ate a new cov­er­age formula.

Jus­tice Ginsburg’s pow­er­ful dis­sent in the case analo­gized strik­ing down key parts of the VRA to “throw­ing away your umbrella in a rain­storm because you are not get­ting wet.” Unfor­tu­nately, Jus­tice Ginsburg’s pre­dic­tion that, with­out the pro­tec­tions of the VRA, voter sup­pres­sion prob­lems would again rain down on those for­merly cov­ered juris­dic­tions, has proven quite prescient.

In fact, there is grow­ing evi­dence that the rul­ing has had a dev­as­tat­ing impact on bal­lot access and vot­ing rights in those previously-covered VRA juris­dic­tions.  A dis­crim­i­na­tory redis­trict­ing plan and harsh voter ID law in Texas – which had been part of sub­mit­ted plans that the Jus­tice Depart­ment and fed­eral courts had specif­i­cally refused to pre­clear the pre­vi­ous year – threaten to dis­en­fran­chise hun­dreds of thou­sands of eli­gi­ble African Amer­i­can and Latino vot­ers. In Alabama, fol­low­ing the enact­ment of a restric­tive voter ID law, DMV offices were closed in coun­ties with some of the high­est minor­ity pop­u­la­tions, mak­ing it much more dif­fi­cult to obtain IDs nec­es­sary to vote.  North Car­olina passed one of the harsh­est, most restric­tive vot­ing laws in the coun­try. And in Ari­zona we saw in the pri­mary elec­tion ear­lier this year that thou­sands of peo­ple could not vote because Mari­copa County, the largest county in the state, dropped from more than 400 polling places to just 60. Over­all in 2016, accord­ing to the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice, 17 states have new vot­ing restric­tions in place.

Now, as vot­ers face the prospect of the first Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in 50 years with­out the robust pro­tec­tions of the VRA, there are dire dis­crim­i­na­tory warn­ing signs – unless Con­gress acts,

A bipar­ti­san bill pend­ing now before Con­gress, the Vot­ing Rights Advance­ment Act, would cre­ate a mod­ern for­mula for pre­clear­ance and put in place much-needed vot­ing rights pro­tec­tions. On this third anniver­sary of Shelby County, all Amer­i­cans should learn about the impor­tant legacy of the VRA – and take action to urge Con­gress to restore the full vital­ity of the VRA by enact­ing the Vot­ing Rights Advance­ment Act.

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June 18, 2014 0

Honoring The Memory Of Murdered Civil Rights Workers

June 21 marks the 50th anniver­sary of the mur­ders of three young civil rights work­ers who trav­elled to Mis­sis­sippi for “Free­dom Sum­mer,” to help African Amer­i­can res­i­dents under­stand their con­sti­tu­tional rights and reg­is­ter to vote.  Fac­ing deep insti­tu­tional racism, fewer than five per­cent of the 500,000 black adults in Mis­sis­sippi were then reg­is­tered to vote.  Michael “Mickey” Schw­erner, 24, James Chaney, 21, and Andrew Good­man, 20, knew they were risk­ing their lives for their cause. murdered-civil-rights-workers

On June 21, 1964, after they had inves­ti­gated the burn­ing of a black church, the three young men were reported miss­ing.    Forty-four days later, their bod­ies were found buried deep in a dam in Philadel­phia, Mis­sis­sippi.  The nation later learned that on their way back, the men’s car had been stopped for a pre­text traf­fic vio­la­tion and the three had been arrested and held for sev­eral hours.  On their release, they were fol­lowed and mur­dered by mem­bers of the Neshoba Coun­try Sheriff’s Depart­ment, Philadel­phia Police, and mem­bers of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

When Mis­sis­sippi pros­e­cu­tors refused to press mur­der charges, fed­eral author­i­ties, led by Assis­tant Attor­ney Gen­eral for Civil Rights John Doar, brought fed­eral crim­i­nal civil rights charges – with mixed results:  seven of the 18 defen­dants were con­victed, with sen­tences between three and ten years.  At the sen­tenc­ing in Decem­ber 1967, fed­eral judge William Harold Cox crudely explained, “They killed one nig­ger, one Jew, and a white man. I gave them all what I thought they deserved.”  In 1999, a new gen­er­a­tion of Mis­sis­sippi law enforce­ment offi­cials reopened pro­ceed­ings, and in 2005 the State of Mis­sis­sippi indicted the Klan leader who had led the group.  ADL wel­comed his conviction.

The mur­ders in Mis­sis­sippi in 1964 out­raged the nation, pro­vid­ing addi­tional momen­tum to pro­pel pas­sage of the com­pre­hen­sive Civil Rights Act later that sum­mer – and the Vot­ing Rights Act (VRA), one of the most impor­tant, effec­tive civil rights laws – the fol­low­ing year.

We have come a long way as a nation since 1964, but vig­i­lance is nec­es­sary to retain that hard-earned progress.  In 2013, unfor­tu­nately, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a crit­i­cal VRA pro­vi­sion in Shelby County v. Holder.  The League had urged the Court to uphold the Act in an ami­cus brief.  Instead, a nar­row Court major­ity elim­i­nated the for­mula to deter­mine which states must seek prior gov­ern­ment approval for vot­ing changes. The very day the deci­sion was handed down, a num­ber of states began enact­ing previously-blocked voter ID laws and redis­trict­ing mea­sures.

Now, fifty years later, the League is help­ing to lead a very large coali­tion work­ing to fight dis­crim­i­na­tion, pro­mote equal­ity, and pro­tect the same vot­ing rights for which Schw­er­mer, Good­man, and Chaney gave their lives. ADL is urg­ing broad sup­port  for the Vot­ing Rights Amend­ment Act of 2014 (VRAA) which would cre­ate a new for­mula for pre-clearing vot­ing rights changes.

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