The 1960s were a tumultuous time in America, especially for Americans of color. The battle for civil rights was being played out in city streets across the country. The evening news was full of demonstrations and rallies where people were gathering to fight for equality, and to be allowed their Constitutionally protected right to participate in our democracy.
Demonstrations, walkouts and sit-ins led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Both laws pushed America in new bold new direction, working to ensure everyone has a voice in our democracy. For decades Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act, to ensure that everyone, regardless of color, had the right to vote. Yesterday was the first anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, which severely undermined the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court ruling threatened the voting rights of millions of Americans.
“Today, the Supreme Court stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most effective pieces of legislation Congress has passed in the last 50 years,” said Congressman John Lewis, D-Georgia, after the Supreme Court ruling in 2013.
“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”
Representative Lewis continued, “I disagree with the court that the history of discrimination is somehow irrelevant today. The record clearly demonstrates numerous attempts to impede voting rights still exist, and it does not matter that those attempts are not as ‘pervasive, widespread or rampant’ as they were in 1965. One instance of discrimination is too much in a democracy,” Lewis said.
“Despite the Court’s opinion, voter discrimination based on race is not a thing of the past — it is a current reality that persists to this day,” said Mary Kay Henry, President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
“We saw efforts to disenfranchise African American and Latino voters in the 2012 election cycle in Texas, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia and elsewhere – but voters there were protected by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. In the wake of the Shelby decision, many of these jurisdictions rushed to implement new laws in time for the 2014 election cycle – the same unfair and discriminatory voting practices that had been rejected by the Department of Justice and the Federal Courts under the Voting Rights Act. After the Supreme Court ruling, a handful of states moved quickly to push new ‘Voter ID’ laws that have notoriously disenfranchised voters of color. Texas also rammed through their new gerrymandered districts that, prior to this decision, would have required a pre-clearance from the Department of Justice,” Henry said.
“Since 2010, 22 states have passed new voting restrictions that make it more difficult to vote,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, said, citing a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice. “Of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008, seven of those have new restrictions in place.”
On June 25 the Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on Sen. Leahy’s bill to restore the Voting Rights Act.
“In the audience for Wednesday’s hearing was Ernest Montgomery, a member of the Calera City Council in Alabama and one of several black residents who intervened in the Shelby County lawsuit to try to protect pre-clearance. He said any update to the Voting Rights Act “should restore pre-clearance for Alabama.” (Burlington Free Press) “It would make our state leaders much more cautious about having any more violations and make sure we do the right thing,” Montgomery said.
After a year of waiting, and the unparalleled attacks on voting rights, we have seen a renewed effort for Congress to pass a new Voting Rights Act.
“That is why Members of Congress must come together and develop a fix to the Voting Rights Act – as the Court’s majority opinion recommended – that protects all Americans’ right to vote, regardless of who they are and where they live,” Henry stated. “We are hopeful that Congress can work together to restore the protections against racial discrimination that the Voting Rights Act is meant to provide for all Americans.”
“Fully restoring the Voting Rights Act is one of the only ways to give every American the fundamental right to participate in our democracy. Today’s bipartisan hearing on the Voting Rights Amendment Act is the first step in the fight to restore voting rights, the lifeblood of our democracy,” stated Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers. “Our elected leaders should do everything in their power to make our democracy more accessible,” continued Weingarten.
“Sadly, the Shelby decision and other state measures have made it easier for monied interests to have a voice and harder for those who have been historically disenfranchised,” Weingarten said.
“The right to vote is precious and almost sacred, and one of the most important blessings of our democracy,” wrote Rep. John Lewis. “Today we must be vigilant in protecting that blessing.”
“As we approach another election, we must join together and reclaim the promise of our democracy, reverse the Shelby decision and enact meaningful protections at the ballot box,” concluded Weingarten.
AFT created a petition calling for action from the US House on a new Voting Rights Act. Will Congress do the right thing to protect the voting rights of millions of Americans, or will they continue to sit there, with their hands over their eyes, pretending that people of color are not being refused their Constitutional right to vote?
Matt Murray is founder of the NH Labor News. He is a union member and advocate for labor. He also works with other unions and members to help spread our message, and oversees the NH Labor News Facebook page. Follow @NHLabor_News on Twitter.
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