Democracy still fragile on anniversary of Voting Rights Act signing

OPINION - During these last few years we have witnessed an unprecedented assault on the right to vote...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Forty-eight years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson put his pen to paper to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.

At the time, it had been almost a century since the 15th Amendment had been adopted, yet despite its prohibitions, state-sanctioned disenfranchisement of African-Americans had relentlessly continued.

The failure of then-existing legal mechanisms to dismantle discriminatory voting regimes resulted in a pattern of pervasive and entrenched discrimination against African-Americans and other minority voters.  The enactment of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965 was a triumph of historic proportions for America.

As we commemorate this day, we should remember the momentous gains achieved under the Voting Rights Act in eradicating barriers to the ballot box, some of which would be unthinkable today—poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests, threats of violence at the polling place, and other discriminatory barriers. Section 2 of the Act establishes a nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting and has been successful in challenging racial gerrymandering and other tactics aimed at diluting minority voting strength.

The Section 5 pre-clearance remedy requires certain states and political subdivisions with a history of voting discrimination—identified through a predetermined “coverage formula” under Section 4—to “pre-clear” voting changes with the Department of Justice or a federal court in D.C.  Pre-clearance has been a powerful tool for ensuring that racially discriminatory voting changes are screened out before they can be implemented and has proven to be singularly effective in remedying the historic tide of racial discrimination in voting.

Between the 1982 and 2006 re-authorizations of the Voting Rights Act, pre-clearance blocked over 600 discriminatory voting changes; an additional 31 voting changes have been blocked since 2006. The protections encompassed by the Voting Rights Act have led to historic levels of registration, turnout, and representation in elected office by African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans.

Though clear and measurable progress has been made, we are reminded that democracy can be fragile.  During these last few years we have witnessed an unprecedented assault on the right to vote. Indeed, it was the litigation of organizations such as the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Committee Under Law and other civil rights organizations that used the enforcement remedies available under the Voting Rights Act to stop racially discriminatory changes to voting procedures in places like Texas, South Carolina, and Florida.

In 2012, voters of color turned out in defiance of these cynical attempts by politicians to insulate themselves from the democratic process, often waiting in line for several hours to cast their ballots.

Just a few weeks ago, with one sharp tug, the Supreme Court unraveled what had taken generations to achieve.  In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, held the Section 4 coverage formula unconstitutional, which halted indefinitely the pre-clearance remedy for thousands of jurisdictions that had been covered by the formula. The pre-clearance remedy was instrumental in blocking or mitigating the impact of many of the restrictive voting changes affecting voters in these jurisdictions and was a powerful deterrent for restraining jurisdictions from adopting discriminatory voting practices.

The devastating aftermath of the Shelby County decision was immediately apparent.  Mere hours after the decision came down, North Carolina legislators promised to move quickly on a slew of voting changes—a promise which they kept by introducing the single most repressive voting bill in recent memory, containing a virtual wish list of voter suppression tactics. Texas also announced immediately that it would move forward with instituting its photo ID law, which had been blocked by pre-clearance review due to its racially discriminatory impact.

Congress must act to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act has always been a bipartisan exercise conducted with a solemn understanding of the task at hand to protect the right to vote from the scourge of racial discrimination.

Until then, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in partnership with other civil rights organizations, will continue to fight on every front against attempts to restrict the right to vote and to ensure lawmakers are upholding the promise of the 15th Amendment.  We commend President Obama and Attorney General Holder for their pledges to use the full authority of the Department of Justice to protect the right to vote for all Americans.

While today we remember the day the Voting Rights Act became law, this year we commemorate another historical milestone of the civil rights movement—the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where over 200,000 activists stood on the National Mall and listened to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. speak about his dreams for our nation.

I invite all who seek to make a stand for voting rights and democracy to join the commemoration of the March on Washington in Washington D.C. on August 24, 2013 and demand that Congress restore the vital protections of the Voting Rights Act!

Barbara R. Arnwine, President & Executive Director of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee) since 1989, is internationally renowned for contributions on critical justice issues including the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1991 and creation of the renowned 2011 Voting Rights “Map of Shame.” The Lawyers’ Committee is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, formed in 1963.  For more information, please visit Ms. Arnwine is a prominent leader of Election Protection (EP), the nation’s largest nonpartisan voter protection coalition, launched in 2004 to assist historically disenfranchised persons to exercise the fundamental right to vote.

Sonia Gill, Associate Counsel, Voting Rights Project, contributed to this article.