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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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June 25, 2014 0

One Year After Shelby, Voters Are Getting Wet

Today marks the one year anniver­sary of Shelby County v. Holder, in which the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the land­mark Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), essen­tially gut­ting the heart of the legislation.voting-rights-amendment-act-2014

Sec­tion 5 of the VRA requires fed­eral gov­ern­ment approval for any elec­tion law changes—issues rang­ing from polling site loca­tions to redraw­ing con­gres­sional dis­trict lines—in juris­dic­tions with a his­tory of dis­crim­i­na­tory vot­ing prac­tices. But one year ago, the Supreme Court held uncon­sti­tu­tional the for­mula used to deter­mine which states and local­i­ties would have to sub­mit their vot­ing changes to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, find­ing its ori­gins in vot­ing sta­tis­tics and statutes from decades past too atten­u­ated to jus­tify present day fed­eral intervention.

In Shelby, Chief Jus­tice Roberts cited advances in minor­ity vot­ing and reg­is­tra­tion in the cov­ered juris­dic­tions, not­ing that African Amer­i­can turnout sur­passes white turnout in some of the pre­vi­ously cov­ered states.

But Jus­tice Gins­burg, in her pow­er­ful dis­sent, analo­gized strik­ing down key parts of the VRA to “throw­ing away your umbrella in a rain­storm because you are not get­ting wet.” In essence Jus­tice Gins­burg pre­dicted that, with­out the pro­tec­tions of the VRA, voter sup­pres­sion prob­lems would rain down on those for­merly cov­ered juris­dic­tions once more.

Indeed, a new report by the Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence on Civil and Human Rights sug­gests that the skies remain omi­nously over­cast. Moments after the Supreme Court announced its deci­sion, Texas imple­mented voter ID and redis­trict­ing laws pre­vi­ously held invalid under Sec­tion 5. Alabama and Mis­sis­sippi sim­i­larly moved for­ward with voter ID laws pre­vi­ously held at bay. Weeks after the deci­sion, North Car­olina acted to elim­i­nate same-day voter reg­is­tra­tion, restrict early vot­ing, and enact one of the tough­est voter ID laws in the country.

Vir­ginia fur­ther tight­ened a voter ID law pre­vi­ously approved by the Depart­ment of Jus­tice in a more lenient form. Around the coun­try, leg­is­la­tors con­tinue to intro­duce new bills that threaten to restrict the right to vote.

The impact of these laws on minor­ity vot­ers remains to be seen, and some face legal obsta­cles before going into effect. Recent fed­eral court deci­sions in Wis­con­sin and Penn­syl­va­nia inval­i­dat­ing voter ID laws demon­strate that avenues may remain for fed­eral enforce­ment of vot­ing rights. And efforts are ongo­ing to revive Sec­tion 5 through lit­i­ga­tion and through new leg­is­la­tion. But the devel­op­ments in the one year since Shelby County serve as an impor­tant reminder that the right to vote remains ten­u­ous and must be vig­i­lantly pro­tected, par­tic­u­larly with­out the safe­guards of Sec­tion 5.

On this one-year anniver­sary of Shelby, take action and urge Con­gress to restore Sec­tion 5 by pass­ing the Vot­ing Rights Amend­ment Act of 2014.

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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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