The words of the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution could not be clearer: Section 1. The rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude; Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. Even the strict constructionists among us would have a difficult time reading that language as anything less than the full protection of the right to vote for all citizens of the United States regardless of their status. Yet it wasn’t until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Congress acted to enforce the rights of the Fifteenth Amendment against a century of methodical and systematic obstruction that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to a free and unfettered franchise.
As the nation marked the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act this past weekend with memories of past tragedies and victories, the present and the future of the Voting Rights Act were also very much on the agenda.
If Congress doesn’t act to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act by August 6, 2007, key provisions of the law will expire. These include: Section 5, the pre-clearance provision, which has been the heart of the law, and which bars practices that have the effect of denying the right to vote in covered geographical areas and requires all proposed changes to the voting or election procedures to be “pre-cleared” with either the Department of Justice or the United States District Court for the District of Columbia; Section 203, the language provisions, which requires bilingual language assistance for covered language minorities; and Sections 6 and 9, which give the attorney general the authority to send federal observers and appoint examiners to monitor elections.
While some have already begun to argue that there is no longer a need to extend the expiring provisions, particularly Section 5, one need only review the most recent litigation surrounding state compliance with the Voting Rights Act and the complaints of voter intimidation coupled with political maneuvering and misdirection in communities of color in the past two presidential elections to make a compelling case that the protections provided in the expiring provisions of the VRA are still very much needed. We’ve come a long way since 1965 and attitudes have changed substantially, but now is not the time to turn our backs on the protections that have brought us this far.
Not only should the expiring provisions be extended, they should also be strengthened. Recent Supreme Court decisions – Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board (2000) and Georgia v. Ashcroft (2003) – have served to weaken Section 5. Reno v. Bossier undermined the “purpose” prong of Section 5 by denying a Section 5 challenge to a school board redistricting plan in Louisiana that the Court held had the effect of discriminating against African Americans but did not have a retrogressive effect of making them worse off. In other words, the Court ruled that it was fine for the redrawn school board electoral map to intentionally discriminate against African Americans just as long as it didn’t make them worse off than they already were. The Court’s ruling in Georgia v. Ashcroft served to further weaken the test of what constitutes a retrogressive impact under Section 5. Congress should act to close the loopholes created by these Supreme Court rulings. In addition, Congress should explore a narrowly tailored expansion of Section 5 to include a “bail-in” provision that would give the Department of Justice the authority to include jurisdictions that demonstrate a pattern of discrimination in election practices under the pre-clearance requirement.
With state legislatures continuing to push the envelope in devising new election reform schemes to limit the franchise and Congress failing to take the necessary steps to adequately fund the Help America Vote Act of 2002 or pass additional needed reforms to the federal election process, extending and strengthening the VRA resonates all the more.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Selma, Alabama, with a bipartisan congressional delegation organized by the Washington, DC-based Faith and Politics Institute to mark the anniversary of the first Selma to Montgomery march. We walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Rep. John Lewis and other veterans of “Bloody Sunday,” which was a catalyst for the passage of the Voting Rights Act. To literally walk in the footsteps of those who risked their lives to secure the right to vote was a defining moment for me and the other members of the delegation. Here’s to the hope that the same sense of spirit and purpose that we experienced that day will embolden the bipartisan majority in Congress needed to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act and make the 50th anniversary of the law all the more to celebrate.
Cassandra Butts is the Senior Vice President for Domestic Policy at the Center for American Progress.
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