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June 24, 2016 Off

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 The Court held this formula uncon­sti­tu­tional, saying that the formula was out of date.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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September 11, 2015 1

Marching for Fairness – the NAACP Journey for Justice

After participating in the historic voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965, Rabbi Abramson Joshua Heschel famously said:

“For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

Sandmel

ADL Director of Interfaith Affairs Rabbi David Sandmel and NAACP President and CEO Cornell Brooks on the road to Washington DC as part of the Journey for Justice.

 

That march played a significant role in prompting Congress to enact the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) – perhaps the most impor­tant and effec­tive civil rights leg­is­la­tion ever passed.   In the half cen­tury since then, the VRA has secured and safe­guarded the right to vote for mil­lions of Amer­i­cans. Its suc­cess in elim­i­nat­ing dis­crim­i­na­tory bar­ri­ers to full civic par­tic­i­pa­tion and in advanc­ing equal polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion at all lev­els of gov­ern­ment is unde­ni­able.

Sometimes legs pray.

And sometimes legs carry you to Washington DC to demand progress toward justice and fair treatment for all.

Today, fifty years after the passage of the VRA, and two years after a deeply troubling Supreme Court decision that essentially gutted the heart of the legislation — marchers are on their way to Washington to demand voting rights protections again.  The NAACP has organized America’s Journey for Justice, which started in Selma on August 1.  The Anti-Defamation League is one of the supporting organizations for the 1000-mile march, as we had supported the original Selma to Montgomery march.  Then-ADL National Director Ben Epstein wrote,

“We walked together—more than 3,000 Americans: Negroes and whites, ministers, rabbis, Catholic nuns, students, representatives of organizations, those who belonged to no group other than the human race—all in peaceful demonstration against blind violence, in ‘gigantic witness’ to the constitutionally guaranteed right of all citizens to register and vote.”

Journey to Justice culminates in an Advocacy Day on the Capital Hill on September 16.  Marchers and their supporters will have dozens of meetings with Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate.  The principal focal point for the lobbying will be the need to address the devastating impact of Shelby County v. Holder, a 2013 Supreme Court decision which gutted a key provision of the VRA, dramatically limiting its effectiveness and reach.

Last November – the first major election since Shelby County – there were new restrictions on voting in 15 states, endangering voting rights for hundreds of thousands of Americans. From voter ID laws that threaten to disenfranchise African Americans, Latinos, students and elderly voters, to cuts to early voting and onerous requirements for voter registration, the right to vote is in peril.

The proper response to the Shelby County decision is the bipartisan Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 (S. 1659/H.R. 2867).  The VRAA reasserts appropriate federal oversight over efforts to change state and local voting laws and provides additional safeguards for voting.

Since, 1965 reaffirming the nation’s commitment to full voting rights for all has never been controversial.  Each time the VRA came up for reauthorization it has received overwhelming, bipartisan Congressional support.  The last time Congress extended the VRA, in 2006, it did so after an exhaustive hearings on voting discrimination and the impact of the VRA – resulting in thousands of pages of documentation.  The legislation passed overwhelmingly: 390 to 33 in the House of Representatives and 98-0 in the Senate.

As we have commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) this summer, we have been reminded just how far we have come – how impactful the VRA has been in ensuring the rights of all Americans to have their say in our democracy.   Journey for Justice marchers and their supporters are demonstrating that Congress must do more than merely commemorate anniversaries of historic civil rights victories.  They must act.  Now is the time for Congress to act to restore the protections of the VRA and secure the right to vote for all Americans.

 

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July 15, 2015 1

The Voting Rights Advancement Act: Necessary to Ensure Voting Rights for All

Almost fifty years ago, on August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the historic Voting Rights Act (VRA), one of the most important and effective pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed.   In the almost half century since its passage, the VRA has secured and safeguarded the right to vote for millions of Americans. Its success in eliminating discriminatory barriers to full civic participation and in advancing equal political participation at all levels of government is undeniable. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has supported passage of the VRA and every reauthorization since 1965, filed amicus briefs urging the Supreme Court to uphold the law, promoted awareness about the importance of the VRA, and encouraged the Department of Justice to use the VRA to protect voting rights for all.

VRA interns for web

The last time Congress extended the VRA, it did so after an exhaustive examination of voting discrimination and the impact of the VRA – days of hearings and thousands of pages of documentation. The legislation passed overwhelming: 390 to 33 in the House of Representatives and 98-0 in the Senate.

Notwithstanding this overwhelming support and exhaustively-documented legislative history – and the undeniably extraordinary impact of the VRA–a bitterly divided 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court struck down §4(b) of the VRA (the formula to determine which states and political subdivisions would have to preclear all voting changes) in Shelby County v. Holder , essentially gutting the heart of the legislation.

Almost immediately after the decision, states that had been subject to preclearance oversight for voting changes began enacting laws that threaten to disproportionately disenfranchise minority, young, poor, and elderly voters. Texas, for example, enacted a strict plan that federal courts had previously rejected, finding that there was “more evidence of discriminatory intent than we have space, or need, to address here….Simply put, many Hispanics and African Americans who voted in the last elections will, because of the burdens imposed by SB 14 , likely be unable to vote.”

Texas was not alone in quickly moving to enact unwarranted voter ID laws and restrictions on voter registration and early voting opportunities. In fact, the efforts over the last few years to restrict voting rights around the country are unprecedented in modern America. The United States has not seen such a major legislative push to limit voting rights since right after Reconstruction

In Shelby County, the Court invited Congress to craft a new formula based on its guidance. This legislation, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, has now been introduced in both the House and the Senate. The measure would update the coverage formula, put in place additional safeguards for voting, and help ensure that all Americans can have their say in our democracy.

As we celebrate the anniversary of the VRA, it’s time to legislate, not just commemorate.

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