The Voting Rights Act turned 55 on August 6, commemorating when President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law to ensure voting rights for African-Americans. But in 2013, a major enforcement provision was eliminated, weakening the act.
So where does it stand now?
It was, “by far one of the most successful pieces of federal civil rights legislation” Nancy Abudu, the deputy legal director of voting rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told USA Today.
But weakening the act hastened efforts to disenfranchise the voters it was put into place to protect.
In 2013, the Shelby County vs. Holder case went to the Supreme Court which resulted in the removal of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. That was the part of the act that required southern states that had a documented history of racism to receive federal preclearance for their voting practices.
According to USA Today, those states with jurisdictions known for egregiously discriminatory voting practices were Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia. Locations in California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota were included as well.
James Cobb, a history professor at the University of Georgia and a former president of the Southern Historical Association, told USA Today that the Voting Rights Act was immediately effective. It led to African American voter registration improving by approximately 70% by the next election.
That factor is ironically what led to the voting law’s provision being struck down because the increase in Black voter registration supposedly meant that it was no longer needed.
But according to multiple studies, after Section 4 was eliminated, lawmakers in 25 states worked to undermine voting with everything from Voter ID laws to closing polling places to eligibility challenges.
Those issues have been realized in everything from long lines in voting precincts with heavily Black voting populations to the contentious Georgia gubernatorial race in 2018, when candidate Stacey Abrams alleged that the eventual victor, Brian Kemp, suppressed thousands of votes.
“Without that federal review process, we’ve literally seen rampant voter suppression efforts overtake parts of the country within the last several years,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told USA Today.
“States like Georgia, Texas and North Carolina top the list.”
The late Georgia congressman John Lewis was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge while advocating for voting rights in Selma, Alabama in 1965 before the Voting Rights Act was passed. He fought for those rights for the rest of his life.
Democratic congressmen and women want to honor his sacrifices by updating the Civil Rights Act with Section 4 intact and naming the update after Lewis. It’s unlikely to happen with a Republican-controlled Senate.
“The law he nearly died for has been gutted by the Supreme Court,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), the minority leader, said on the Senate floor after Lewis’ death as reported by the NY Times.
“Congress has the power to restore it. But only one party seems interested in doing so.”
The Voting Rights Act takes on new importance this year as the coronavirus has impacted primaries all over the country with some fearful to stand in long lines in contested precincts. Many want to use mail-in ballots in November as an alternative to in-person voting.
President Donald Trump‘s attacks on the United States Postal Service and the appointment of Trump donor Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General have exacerbated those concerns. Cities around the country have experienced mail delivery slowdowns due to “efficiency” policies DeJoy recently enacted. They include the elimination of overtime and leaving mail to be delivered the next day on a postal carrier’s daily run if it comes in late.
Last month, New York Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, and Democratic Virginia Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, who leads the House subcommittee that oversees the Postal Service wrote to DeJoy about the change in policy. They were concerned about the impact it might have on the election.
“While these changes in a normal year would be drastic, in a presidential election year when many states are relying heavily on absentee mail-in ballots, increases in mail delivery timing would impair the ability of ballots to be received and counted in a timely manner — an unacceptable outcome for a free and fair election,” they wrote.
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