Every year Martin Luther King, Jr. Day provides a time to reflect on how far we have come in the quest for civil rights and how much more we have to do. Two momentous developments in voting rights law give us reason to hope that 2014 will be a good year for ensuring that, nearly 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), all Americans can exercise their fundamental right to vote.
Yesterday, members of Congress set aside their partisan differences and introduced crucial new legislation to fix the gaping hole in the VRA created by the Supreme Court’s ruling last year in Shelby County v. Holder. In June the Supreme Court struck down the part of the law that determined which states and localities with a history of discriminatory voting practices would have to “pre-clear” their laws with the federal government, essentially gutting the heart of the legislation. In the 5-4 opinion Chief Justice Roberts said that “Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions.”
Congress heard that call. The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 (H.R. 3899/S. 1945) creates a new formula to determine which jurisdictions must pre-clear their laws going forward. It also strengthens courts’ abilities to monitor localities that implement discriminatory voting laws, makes it easier for voters to spot voting rights violations, and reduces hurdles to fixing discriminatory voting laws. The bill is not perfect, but it provides a very good starting point for ensuring that all Americans will be able to make their voices heard in the democratic process. ADL looks forward to working with members of Congress to strengthen the bill even further, and to passing meaningful reform.
In another victory for voting rights, today a judge in Pennsylvania, in a case called Applewhite v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, struck down the state’s law requiring voters to show one of an enumerated list of government-issued photo identification to be able to vote. Recognizing that “the overwhelming evidence reflects that there are hundreds of thousands of qualified voters who lack compliant ID,” and that “disenfranchising voters through no fault of the voter himself is plainly unconstitutional,” the judge struck down the voter ID law. He concluded that “voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID Law does not further this goal.” Studies have consistently shown that voter ID laws, like the one struck down today in Pennsylvania, disproportionately impact minority, low income, elderly, and young voters. Today’s ruling clears the way for more citizens to exercise their fundamental right to vote.
Days before we celebrate MLK Day we are heartened to know that Dr. King’s legacy of fighting for civil rights and equality for all lives on. Dr. King once famously said that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Over the last two days we have taken two steps forward on that arc, getting closer to a day when all Americans will be able to exercise their right to vote, free of discriminatory hurdles.