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June 24, 2016

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 The Court held this formula uncon­sti­tu­tional, saying that the formula was out of date.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

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.”


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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August 5, 2015

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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