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August 5, 2015 0

On the 50th Anniversary of Voting Rights Act, Congress Must Legislate

By Jonathan Green­blatt
National Direc­tor of the Anti-Defamation League

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared on The Huff­in­g­ton Post Blog

Fifty years ago, as Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son signed into law the Vot­ing Rights Act, he said, “Today is a tri­umph for free­dom as huge as any vic­tory that has ever been won on any battlefield.”

The anal­ogy was apt. Peo­ple had indeed given their blood – and in some cases even their lives – fight­ing for the right to vote.

It was also accu­rate. The Vot­ing Rights Act (VRA) secured and safe­guarded the right to vote for mil­lions of Amer­i­cans, mak­ing it among the most impor­tant mile­stones of the civil rights move­ment and per­haps its most effec­tive leg­isla­tive achievement.

For decades before the enact­ment of the VRA, states had used laws – includ­ing lit­er­acy tests, grand­fa­ther clauses, and poll taxes­ – to pre­vent African Amer­i­cans from vot­ing. Although, when chal­lenged, the courts almost always struck down the laws as uncon­sti­tu­tional, it some­times took years for the cases to make their way through the court sys­tem.  By the time the courts struck down one law, leg­is­la­tors had passed another dis­crim­i­na­tory law to take its place.

The VRA changed the equa­tion.  By not only out­law­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion in vot­ing around the coun­try, but also requir­ing the his­tor­i­cally worst offend­ers – both states and local juris­dic­tions – to “pre­clear” their pro­posed changes to vot­ing prac­tices with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment before going into place, the VRA opened the door for those pre­vi­ously silenced by dis­crim­i­na­tion to make their voices heard.

And the VRA’s suc­cess was clear almost imme­di­ately. After 1965, African Amer­i­can voter reg­is­tra­tion rates sky­rock­eted. The num­ber of African Amer­i­cans elected to pub­lic office increased five­fold within five years of the VRA’s pas­sage. By the early 2000s, there were more than 9,000 African Amer­i­can elected offi­cials in the United States – includ­ing the first African Amer­i­can president—and most were from areas required to pre­clear their laws with the fed­eral government.

In 2013, how­ever, in a case called Shelby County v. Holder, a deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court struck down a crit­i­cal part of the VRA, essen­tially gut­ting the heart of the leg­is­la­tion. Although the court affirmed that the idea of pre­clear­ance was con­sti­tu­tional, it struck down the for­mula used to deter­mine which states and local­i­ties would have to pre­clear their laws, effec­tively end­ing the prac­tice of preclearance.

In a pow­er­ful dis­sent, Jus­tice Ruth Bader Gins­burg wrote, “Throw­ing out pre­clear­ance when it has worked and is con­tin­u­ing to work to stop dis­crim­i­na­tory changes is like throw­ing away an umbrella in a rain­storm because you’re not get­ting wet.”

As Jus­tice Gins­burg and the other dis­senters had fore­seen, the storms rolled in imme­di­ately. Within hours of the Supreme Court’s deci­sion, Texas, North Car­olina, and other states put into effect dis­crim­i­na­tory vot­ing laws that had been pre­vi­ously blocked by fed­eral courts review­ing the poli­cies as part of the pre­clear­ance procedure.

Texas, for exam­ple, imme­di­ately revived a redis­trict­ing plan that a fed­eral court had refused to pre­clear before Shelby County, find­ing “more evi­dence of dis­crim­i­na­tory intent than we have space or need to address here,” and put into effect a voter ID law that another fed­eral court had blocked, con­clud­ing that “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.”

Since then, states and local­i­ties around the county have passed dozens of laws that threaten to dis­en­fran­chise hun­dreds of thou­sands of vot­ers, dis­pro­por­tion­ately impact­ing com­mu­ni­ties of color, the elderly, peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, stu­dents, and poor people.

When the Supreme Court struck down the for­mula used to deter­mine which states would have to pre­clear their laws, it expressly left open the door for Con­gress to cre­ate a new formula.

Recently, Con­gress has answered that call. A new bill has been intro­duced in both the House and the Sen­ate – the Vot­ing Rights Advance­ment Act – which would revive the cru­cial vot­ing rights pro­tec­tions of the VRA by cre­at­ing a new for­mula for pre­clear­ance, putting in place addi­tional safe­guards for vot­ing, and once more help­ing to ensure that all Amer­i­cans can have their say in our democracy.

In 2006, the last year in which Con­gress voted on reau­tho­riza­tion of the VRA, sup­port for con­tin­u­ing the law’s crit­i­cal safe­guards was bipar­ti­san and nearly unan­i­mous. The vote was 390 to 33 in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives (includ­ing over 150 cur­rent Rep­re­sen­ta­tives) and 98 to 0 in the Sen­ate (includ­ing over 30 cur­rent Senators).

That same bipar­ti­san sup­port for the VRA is more impor­tant today than ever before. In this moment when our coun­try seems polar­ized on so many issues and ten­sions are uncom­fort­ably high, an endorse­ment from both sides of the aisle for the VRA would be a pow­er­ful sign of demo­c­ra­tic renewal and national civil­ity at a time when such behav­iors are in short supply.

As we gear up for the 2016 elec­tion – the first pres­i­den­tial elec­tion since the Supreme Court crip­pled the VRA’s pro­tec­tions – we need, as Pres­i­dent John­son said, a new tri­umph for free­dom to match any won on a battlefield.

On the 50th anniver­sary of the Vot­ing Rights Act, it is time to leg­is­late, not just commemorate.

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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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March 26, 2015 2

50 Years Later: Bending the Arc of the Moral Universe Towards Justice

Fifty years ago yes­ter­day Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. addressed a crowd of 20,000 peo­ple, many of whom had marched for a week from Selma to Mont­gomery, Alabama to advo­cate for vot­ing rights.  Their arrival was tri­umphant, after the first attempt had left the non-violent marchers blood­ied and beaten—but not defeated—by police offi­cers in Selma two-and-a-half weeks before. As he stood on the steps of the capi­tol build­ing in Mont­gomery and reflected on the jour­ney of the civil rights move­ment, Dr. King rhetor­i­cally asked, “How long will it take?” and famously answered, “Not long, because the arc of the moral uni­verse is long, but it bends towards justice.” martin-luther-king-jr

As with any long arc, it is almost impos­si­ble to see progress from up close.  Each small, incre­men­tal change seems insignif­i­cant from that van­tage point.  Yet tak­ing a step back and look­ing at the tra­jec­tory over the past 50 years reveals how every small step has con­tributed to bend­ing the arc just a lit­tle bit fur­ther towards justice.

Today, the United States has the first African Amer­i­can pres­i­dent and there are almost seven times as many African Amer­i­can elected offi­cials as there were in 1970, when researchers first began track­ing the num­bers. The 2012 elec­tion marked the first elec­tion in which African Amer­i­cans voted at a higher rate than whites.  None of that would have been pos­si­ble with­out the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965, which in turn would never have come to be with­out the tire­less, daily efforts of count­less indi­vid­u­als.  From the Free­dom Rid­ers who risked their lives to reg­is­ter vot­ers, to the peo­ple who fear­lessly faced police offi­cers with billy clubs and tear gas on the Edmund Pet­tus Bridge, to the advo­cates who lob­bied for pas­sage of the bill and the lawyers who argued in court for it to be upheld, each had a small part in bend­ing the arc.

In other areas of civil rights, too, each incre­men­tal step seems small up close but con­tributes to the greater tra­jec­tory.  Today, as the United States hope­fully stands on the eve of mar­riage equal­ity for all, it is clear that many small steps com­bined to get us here.  From the pro­test­ers at Stonewall to the seven cou­ples who brought a case in Mass­a­chu­setts that would ulti­mately make it the first state with mar­riage equal­ity, from the mem­bers of the LGBT com­mu­nity who came out when it was very dif­fi­cult to do so to their allies who spoke up and spoke out about LGBT rights, each per­son and action had a small part to play.  In the area of women’s rights, the women who con­vened a meet­ing in Seneca Falls to write the Dec­la­ra­tion of Rights and Sen­ti­ments, the suf­fragettes, the women who had careers long before it was socially accepted, those who coura­geously came for­ward to speak about sex­ual harass­ment, and the men who sup­ported equal pay for equal work all put small cracks in the glass ceil­ing.  Together, all the advo­cates, activists, allies, and peo­ple who sim­ply spoke up played a part in bend­ing the arc.

The lessons of Selma are about secur­ing the fun­da­men­tal right to vote for all and civil rights more broadly.  But they are also about what can hap­pen over time if each per­son plays a part in advanc­ing civil rights, speak­ing up for social jus­tice, and mov­ing the ball for­ward just the tini­est bit.  Fifty years after Selma, we are much fur­ther along the arc and much closer to a per­fect union, but each of us has a role to play every day in deter­min­ing the tra­jec­tory from here.

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