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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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July 15, 2015

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

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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