On the sixth anniversary of Shelby v. Holder, the Supreme Court decision that gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the U.S. House Judiciary Committee conducted a hearing on the continuing challenges to voting rights in our country. The hearing was not on a specific piece of legislation, but it was still important as Congress works to develop a record of discrimination in voting from around the country to show the need to restore the Voting Rights Act.
Passage of the VRA was one of the most important legislative actions of the 20th Century. However, following the court decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, more than 16 states passed bills that made it more difficult for African Americans and other communities of color to access the ballot box. These obstacles led to an increase in voting rights challenges aimed at finding alternative ways to enforce the stripped provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Organizations like the League have persuasively argued for why upholding the protections within the VRA is key to ensuring access to the voting booth.
Other talented partners arguing for the restoration of the VRA and addressing these issues through litigation include the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, helped set the stage at the hearing this week by outlining how in the face of congressional and administrations inaction, civil rights, and voting rights organizations are “stepping up to fill the void” by challenging laws and regulations across the country that seek to intentionally prevent communities of color and students from having a voice in the process. Since 2016, the Department of Justice has brought zero voting rights challenges forward. Lack of action by the administration puts the ball squarely in the court of Congress which must restore the Voting Rights Act.
Other witnesses at the hearing included those with direct knowledge of state practices like former GA gubernatorial candidate, Stacey Abrams, and Kyle Hawkins, the Solicitor General of Texas. Abrams highlighted the conditions GA voters face when trying to register to vote and the challenges that some voters faced when they went to the polls to vote on Election Day. Abrams said that 500,000 people were purged from the Georgia voter rolls in one single day, making them ineligible to vote on Election Day or requiring them to cast a provisional ballot.
[While] there is a legitimate purpose to cleaning and maintaining the voting rolls... the approach used was so egregious that we have undermined the access to staying on the rolls [in Georgia].
The testimony from Hawkins was quick to point out the constitutional flaws of the Voting Rights Act. He claimed the Supreme Court’s decision was an intention to keep the power to regulate elections in the hands of the states. And while he is correct that the 10th amendment ensures that the “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the state, are reserved for the states respectively, or to the people,” he failed to mention that the 14th amendment ensures that the right “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.” The Voting Rights Act is an enforcement and expansion of the 14th Amendment. It was created a time when the disenfranchisement of African Americans, particularly those in southern states, from voting was a targeted effort to keep those people from the voting booth through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, and other mechanisms.
Modern-day Jim Crow laws have taken the form of voter ID laws, purges of the voting rolls, reduction of early voting and other areas. The svelte tactics of the 21st Century look different from those that occurred during the last half of the 20th century, but they still have the same purpose: preventing key voting blocks from participating in our democracy. Restoration of the VRA is vital to ensuring that every voter can have a voice in our democracy.
Past attempts to reauthorize the VRA have always happened with broad bipartisan support from both Congress and the President. And Congress currently has two pieces of legislation in front of it that will restore the legislation to its full protections. HR 4, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, and HR 1799, the Voting Rights Amendment Act, both work to update the preclearance formula and provide oversight to ensure that discriminatory voting practices are shut down before they go into effect. It’s time for Congress to get serious about moving these proposals forward. We should have another presidential election year where the protections of the VRA are not in place. If we don’t move one of these fixes forward, we will also face the first redistricting cycle in 2021 without the protections of the VRA.