There is only one House bill that will have real impact on voter disenfranchisement and hold states accountable.
A bipartisan coalition of congressional Democrats, like Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Representative Mike Thompson of California, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, and more than a dozen others, are working together to bring the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to life. The strongest piece of legislation has the support of Tom Perez, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Justice, the top civil rights law enforcement agency in the federal government. In fact, he testified in Congress that the new version of the Voting Rights Act provides “the strongest safeguards we’ve ever had for the United States of America.”
The new version of the Voting Rights Act not only strengthens protections for minority voters; it creates individual, local systems of enforcement that will hold offending states and counties accountable.
The new version of the Voting Rights Act would eliminate state preclearance requirements, eliminate the formula used to determine which states are subject to the preclearance requirement, and it will place the onus on the Justice Department and civil rights groups to persuade courts of the injustice of voter discrimination.
Too many Americans have been denied their rights to vote because of their race. The Supreme Court has helped make it harder for many of us to participate in our democracy. Changes in voting laws and practices — particularly those that disproportionately harm minority voters — have been so numerous in recent years that it is difficult to select one part of the law that best exemplifies our nation’s struggle to restore voting rights.
But it is clear that one very important exception that Republicans shamelessly exploited every time voter fraud was an issue did not create equal access to the ballot box. As a result, and in fact because of this loophole, millions of Americans were denied their right to vote. The Supreme Court decision in Shelby County vs. Holder (2013) was a disaster and sowed the seeds of another constitutional crisis in the United States.
Republicans have thrown a litany of excuses to justify gutting the protections that the Voting Rights Act created to protect the right to vote. The Republican Party has confused potential voter fraud with intentional voter suppression. Republicans have also argued that no longer needing to seek Justice Department approval of changes in local election laws will lead to more equal access to the ballot box.
President Trump, with the nod of the Justice Department, also disingenuously insisted that voter discrimination has nothing to do with changing voting procedures — and never has.
However, evidence after evidence proves that the vast majority of discriminatory voting changes that were supported and implemented in state legislatures around the country have been in response to enforcement of our nation’s civil rights laws.
“Ignoring the facts will not make them go away.” These words are from Attorney General Loretta Lynch in a 2014 opinion article outlining the history of the Voting Rights Act and its ongoing effectiveness.
It was Attorney General Lynch, acting as the acting chair of the Executive Committee of the American Bar Association, who spearheaded efforts to rewrite the Voting Rights Act more than a decade ago, and it was Attorney General Lynch, acting as the Chair of the Department of Justice Advisory Committee on Civil Rights, who authored the memo that included the strongest possible language to the Congress to improve the Voting Rights Act.
Once the legislation hits the president’s desk and becomes law, he must issue the executive order instructing his appointees in the department to begin enforcing the legislation.
This is a real opportunity for Democrats to correct this mistake and reverse the damage caused by the Supreme Court’s damaging ruling, which is why it is so important that Democrats in the House are working across the aisle to pass the new Voting Rights Act.
Of course, there is still a risk that the GOP will prevent the new Voting Rights Act from receiving any bipartisan support in the House.
But, with the combined efforts of both parties and a commitment from the White House, bipartisan support is possible and that is what matters most.
Democrats must pass the Voting Rights Act to protect voters, but they cannot put off this effort until the 2020 election. Our entire democracy and its promise of freedom and opportunity have always depended on the right to vote.
The author is a current member of the American Bar Association’s Advisory Committee on Civil Rights.