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Honor Selma by Restoring the Voting Rights Act | Commentary

By Leslie Proll Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, was simply wrong when he recently suggested the Voting Rights Act should not be updated because “more minorities are already voting.” His statement asserts a novel and misguided test for determining the necessity of the Voting Rights Act. It also ignores the abundant evidence of ongoing racial discrimination in voting that makes congressional action to restore the Voting Rights Act essential.  

The Voting Rights Act was intended to prevent racial discrimination in the electoral process. An increase in political participation by voters of color has never been the sole determinant of whether the Voting Rights Act is needed or whether it has been violated in a particular situation. Instead, the relevant question is whether discriminatory obstacles exist which frustrate, discourage or exclude communities of color from the process. That some voters of color are able to overcome these hurdles and cast a vote does not render these practices any less discriminatory.  

Recent increases in voter participation likely reflect our county’s changing demographics, and in the cases of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, a unique impetus for increased political engagement by voters of color. In Grassley’s own state, the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities almost doubled between the last twocensus counts; unsurprisingly, voter turnout in Iowa also jumped in 2008 and 2012.  

Of course, Grassley is entitled to his views. But as chair of the Judiciary Committee, he should advance the interests of the entire Senate by protecting the American people against discrimination in voting. In this 50th anniversary year of the Voting Rights Act, a robust law is vital to ensuring full participation in our democracy. The pursuit of that goal should be at the top of the committee’s agenda for this Congress.  

It has been almost two years since the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. The court invalidated the coverage provision for determining which states and jurisdictions with the worst records of discrimination must preclear voting changes with the federal government. The court rejected the voluminous record compiled by Congress during the act’s reauthorization in 2006 that supported retaining the original coverage provision, and ruled that the provision was outdated. Despite this ruling, the court did not foreclose an updated coverage provision for jurisdictions deserving the close scrutiny required by the Act. Indeed, the court invited Congress to update the Voting Rights Act by stating, “Congress may draft another [coverage provision] based on current conditions.”  

Those conditions strongly support updating the coverage provision. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit heard a challenge to Texas’s photo ID law. The U.S. Justice Department and a three-judge federal court had already blocked this discriminatory law during preclearance, only for Texas to revive it on the day of the Shelby County decision. Last October, a trial court found that the law would create severe burdens for 600,000 registered voters. This number includes Imani Clark, whose Texas college identification did not satisfy the law’s stringent requirements but who could have voted with a concealed-carry gun permit. The court found that Texas adopted the law “with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose” and said that the law amounted to a poll tax because of costs in obtaining the type of photo ID required.  

Since the Shelby County decision, discriminatory voting changes at the local level have flourished. In Baker County, Ga., officials wanted to eliminate four of five polling places in the nearly majority-clack county. In Pasadena, Texas, local officials eliminated two council seats occupied by Latino representatives and replaced them with at-large seats.  

Last year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act. Consistent with the Court’s directive in Shelby County, this bill updates the formula to require preclearance for jurisdictions with a recent history of voting discrimination. It also contains other flexible, forward-thinking measures to protect against discrimination. But the bill never advanced. This year, the House re-introduced the bill, and the Senate is expected to introduce its own bill soon.  

On the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, President Barack Obama stood at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge next to George W. Bush, who signed the Voting Rights Act’s reauthorization in 2006. Obama noted the presence of 100 members of Congress in Selma and called upon them to “go back to Washington, and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore the law this year.” Grassley should heed the president’s call and use his leadership to restore the full strength of our nation’s most important commitment to democracy.  

Leslie Proll is director of the D.C. office of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, a civil rights organization founded by Thurgood Marshall.

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