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January 17, 2014 1

Momentous Times For Voting Rights

Every year Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. Day pro­vides a time to reflect on how far we have come in the quest for civil rights and how much more we have to do.  Two momen­tous devel­op­ments in vot­ing rights law give us rea­son to hope that 2014 will be a good year for ensur­ing that, nearly 50 years after the pas­sage of the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), all Amer­i­cans can exer­cise their fun­da­men­tal right to vote.

Yes­ter­day, mem­bers of Con­gress set aside their par­ti­san dif­fer­ences and intro­duced cru­cial new leg­is­la­tion to fix the gap­ing hole in the VRA cre­ated by the Supreme Court’s rul­ing last year in Shelby County v. Holdermlk-voting-rights-adlIn June the Supreme Court struck down the part of the law that deter­mined which states and local­i­ties with a his­tory of dis­crim­i­na­tory vot­ing prac­tices would have to “pre-clear” their laws with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, essen­tially gut­ting the heart of the leg­is­la­tion.  In the 5–4 opin­ion Chief Jus­tice Roberts said that “Con­gress may draft another for­mula based on cur­rent conditions.” 

Con­gress heard that call.  The Vot­ing Rights Amend­ment Act of 2014 (H.R. 3899/S. 1945) cre­ates a new for­mula to deter­mine which juris­dic­tions must pre-clear their laws going for­ward.  It also strength­ens courts’ abil­i­ties to mon­i­tor local­i­ties that imple­ment dis­crim­i­na­tory vot­ing laws, makes it eas­ier for vot­ers to spot vot­ing rights vio­la­tions, and reduces hur­dles to fix­ing dis­crim­i­na­tory vot­ing laws.  The bill is not per­fect, but it pro­vides a very good start­ing point for ensur­ing that all Amer­i­cans will be able to make their voices heard in the demo­c­ra­tic process.  ADL looks for­ward to work­ing with mem­bers of Con­gress to strengthen the bill even fur­ther, and to pass­ing mean­ing­ful reform.

In another vic­tory for vot­ing rights, today a judge in Penn­syl­va­nia, in a case called Apple­white v. Com­mon­wealth of Penn­syl­va­nia, struck down the state’s law requir­ing vot­ers to show one of an enu­mer­ated list of government-issued photo iden­ti­fi­ca­tion to be able to vote.  Rec­og­niz­ing that “the over­whelm­ing evi­dence reflects that there are hun­dreds of thou­sands of qual­i­fied vot­ers who lack com­pli­ant ID,” and that “dis­en­fran­chis­ing vot­ers through no fault of the voter him­self is plainly uncon­sti­tu­tional,” the judge struck down the voter ID law.  He con­cluded that “vot­ing laws are designed to assure a free and fair elec­tion; the Voter ID Law does not fur­ther this goal.”  Stud­ies have con­sis­tently shown that voter ID laws, like the one struck down today in Penn­syl­va­nia, dis­pro­por­tion­ately impact minor­ity, low income, elderly, and young vot­ers.   Today’s rul­ing clears the way for more cit­i­zens to exer­cise their fun­da­men­tal right to vote.

Days before we cel­e­brate MLK Day we are heart­ened to know that Dr. King’s legacy of fight­ing for civil rights and equal­ity for all lives on.  Dr. King once famously said that “the arc of the moral uni­verse is long but it bends towards jus­tice.”  Over the last two days we have taken two steps for­ward on that arc, get­ting closer to a day when all Amer­i­cans will be able to exer­cise their right to vote, free of dis­crim­i­na­tory hurdles.

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