Today, the Voting Rights Act turns 47 years old. The 1965 law was passed to put an end to Jim Crow-era laws that, along with intimidation and violence, disenfranchised black Americans in the South. Even when black southerners were able to register to vote, they were often required to pass literacy tests, recite the preamble of the Constitution from memory, and pay poll taxes. The Voting Rights Act gave the federal government the tools to prevent discriminatory voting practices passed by the states and guarantee the right to vote for all eligible voters.
However, 47 years later, voting rights are under attack again. Several states over the past two years have passed legislation to make it harder to vote (See FELN and Campus Progress’s Voter Suppression Map). These state legislatures have placed restrictions on voter registration drives, reduced early voting, and required government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot. These laws disproportionately affect the elderly, minorities, young adults, low-income workers, and women. Many of these voters do not have the necessary ID to vote, lack the underlying documents and/or transportation to get the ID they need to vote, or in the case of reduced early voting hours, cannot take the time off from work to vote. These restrictions could impact who is able to cast a ballot and have it counted this November.
Fortunately, the Voting Rights Act has helped in putting a stop to some of these suppressive laws. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), under the authority of the Voting Rights Act, has blocked several of these laws from taking effect. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires states with a history of voting discrimination to have their laws reviewed by the DOJ or the U.S District Court in Washington, D.C. to receive “pre-clearance” before any changes to voting procedures can take effect. This year, the DOJ has blocked voter ID laws from taking effect in South Carolina and Texas. It has also brought a lawsuit against Florida’s voter purge program that threatened to disenfranchise thousands of minorities in Florida this November. The DOJ is also beginning an investigation into whether Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law discriminates against minorities.
However, three states are challenging the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court has received two cases already on appeal that could be heard this fall. Opponents of the protections afforded by the Voting Rights are optimistic because of concerns raised about the constitutionality of Section 5 in the 2009 case, “Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One vs. Holder”. The Court raised concerns about whether the provision was still needed to protect minority voting rights.
Clearly, the work of the Voting Rights Act is not finished. The restrictive laws passed over the past couple of years that could suppress the votes of millions of voters are proof that the tools given the DOJ by the Voting Rights Act are still needed today. Instead of returning to our country’s dark history of suppressing the vote, lawmakers should push legislation that continues the promise of the Voting Rights Act to make voting more accessible to for all eligible voters.