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To honor John Lewis, and our democracy, restore the Voting Rights Act now

On 55th anniversary of signing of landmark law, voter suppression remains alive and well across America

People in Milwaukee wait in line to vote during the Wisconsin primary on April 7.  The letter and spirit of the Voting Rights Act is being violated every day in America, Fudge writes.
People in Milwaukee wait in line to vote during the Wisconsin primary on April 7. The letter and spirit of the Voting Rights Act is being violated every day in America, Fudge writes. (Sara Stathas/The Washington Post via Getty Images file photo)

On Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson sat at a small desk in the President’s Room of the U. S. Capitol and used dozens of pens to sign one of the most important documents in U. S. history — the Voting Rights Act. This week we celebrate 55 years of the landmark legislation that, finally, fully enforced the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which had been ratified 95 years earlier and gave African Americans (men) the right to vote.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited discrimination in access to the ballot box and required certain state and local governments to get prior approval before changing or enacting laws that would suppress the African American vote. The Voting Rights Act has been reauthorized five times since 1965, with bipartisan votes in the House and Senate.

Things changed dramatically in 2013, when protections of the act were rolled back. The Supreme Court of the United States, despite admitting that discrimination in voting still existed, found the Section 4(b) preclearance formula in the act unconstitutional and invited Congress to correct that finding with contemporary evidence of voter discrimination. The Elections Subcommittee of the House Administration panel, which had jurisdiction over the administration of federal elections, was disbanded that same year. But in 2019, the subcommittee was reconstituted by the new Democratic majority, and I was named its chair. The Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision was the starting point for the work of our members.

The goal was simple: Gather as much contemporary evidence as possible to devise a Section 4 formula that would give full force and effect to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. We began in February with a listening session in Brownsville, Texas. Later that month and through October 2019, we held hearings in Atlanta; Standing Rock, North Dakota; Halifax, North Carolina; Cleveland; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Birmingham, Alabama; Phoenix; and Washington, D.C.

The evidence gathered in thousands of pages of testimony and documents left no doubt that voter suppression was alive and well across America. The subcommittee released its report and findings, “Voting Rights and Election Administration in America,” in November 2019, and the House passed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act the following month. It still waits for Senate action.

The VRAA and its Section 4 formula reflect our subcommittee findings that the votes of African Americans and other people of color were consistently suppressed in states around the country. Notably, a September 2018 report by the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, “An Assessment of Minority Voting Rights in the United States,” found five suppression tactics to be the most concerning: requiring government issued identification in order to cast a ballot; requiring documentary proof of citizenship to register; aggressive purges of inactive voters; reductions in early voting; and moving or closing polling places.

Our subcommittee came up with the same findings — and more — during our collection of contemporaneous evidence throughout 2019. It is exceedingly clear that since the 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, America has experienced a resurgence of Jim Crow.

The 55th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act is a sad day. The letter and spirit of the act is being violated every day in America. With the current national health emergency, which disproportionately impacts African Americans and other people, it is more important than ever that we begin to live up to the principles and promise of an America in which all its citizens have a voice. It is time for the Senate to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act. 

In honor of the legacy of John Lewis, we cannot let another year, another election, pass without ensuring full, unfettered access to the ballot box for all Americans. Tell your senators: “We must fully restore the Voting Rights Act now!”

Rep. Marcia L. Fudge is a Democrat representing Ohio’s 11th District. She chairs the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections and the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations. She also sits on the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services.

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