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Congress Must Act Now on the Voting Rights Act | Commentary

We should remember why the Voting Rights Act was enacted in the first place. For decades, states with minority populations systematically disenfranchised minorities, in particular African-Americans, by any number of egregious methods. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided a formula and a method for those states and localities that had the highest number of minorities and had been the worst offenders of voter disenfranchisement.

Any changes to voting rights laws in those states had to be “pre-cleared” by the Justice Department before they could take effect.

For 50 years, six Southern states have had to gain preclearance on changes such as moving voting precincts, drawing new districts, voting hours and locations, or voter ID requirements. In the 1970’s Congress added Alaska, Texas and Arizona and parts of other states to the list.

The recent Supreme Court decision gutted the Section 4 provision that set forth those states that must seek preclearance. The Court said that if Congress wanted a formula at all, it must use updated demographic information and voting practices in determining that formula.

While elected Republicans, particularly in the South, have used the court’s ruling to declaim how far the South has come in terms of fair treatment of minority voters, those same elected officials have given us sweeping changes to state election laws which have in fact made it more difficult for minorities to vote. Many of these states have simply passed laws and have chosen not to submit them to the Justice Department, choosing instead to wait out the Supreme Court decision.

Congress should act to revise the formula in Section 4. Just because the formula used in 1965 has been deemed outdated by the court doesn’t mean that disenfranchisement — and the apparent urge by some lawmakers to suppress minority votes — doesn’t still exist. One need only look at a few recent changes to state election laws to see that there is still a need for federal oversight.

In 2011, South Carolina’s Republican Legislature enacted a strict voter ID law. The Justice Department initially blocked implementation of the law. SC State officials then filed suit in federal court. As Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. pointed out recently, “The Justice Department objected to the law at the trial showing that there were 60,000 black voters in the state who would have been denied the right to vote.” After assurances from state leaders they would use an “extremely broad interpretation” of a provision that made exceptions for voters who didn’t have a photo ID, the court blocked immediate implementation of law. South Carolina is now in the process of implementing voter ID.

In 2011, the Republican-led General Assembly in Alabama enacted a voter ID bill. For two years, the Republican attorney general has allowed the bill to sit on his desk, refusing to send it to the Department of Justice for pre-clearance. With this week’s Supreme Court decision the Republican secretary of State made it clear that Alabama will begin the work of implementing the voter ID bill. Alabama has been unable to provide data on the number of people the bill will disenfranchise. Outside studies have estimated as many as one out of every eight Alabama citizens will be disenfranchised.

Currently in North Carolina, the Republican General Assembly is pushing through a harsh Voter ID bill along with plans to reduce early voting, eliminate Sunday voting and ban same-day registration.

While these Southern States have enacted laws to make it harder for citizens to vote, states in other parts of the country like Washington and Oregon have gone to same day registration and vote-by-mail in an effort to increase voter participation — and it has worked.

There is still a need for a Section 4 formula. Just as in 1964, Congress should make good on its promises to the thousands of people who fought for fair voting and equal access to the polls. While states do have a clear right to make their own laws, they do not have a right to make it more difficult for minority citizens to cast a vote. Congress should act immediately to ensure every American the right to free and fair elections. We should demand nothing less of the greatest democracy in the world.

Jay Parmley is the executive director of South Forward.

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