By Jonathan Greenblatt
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League
This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post Blog
Fifty years ago, as President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, he said, “Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield.”
The analogy was apt. People had indeed given their blood – and in some cases even their lives – fighting for the right to vote.
It was also accurate. The Voting Rights Act (VRA) secured and safeguarded the right to vote for millions of Americans, making it among the most important milestones of the civil rights movement and perhaps its most effective legislative achievement.
For decades before the enactment of the VRA, states had used laws – including literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and poll taxes – to prevent African Americans from voting. Although, when challenged, the courts almost always struck down the laws as unconstitutional, it sometimes took years for the cases to make their way through the court system. By the time the courts struck down one law, legislators had passed another discriminatory law to take its place.
The VRA changed the equation. By not only outlawing discrimination in voting around the country, but also requiring the historically worst offenders – both states and local jurisdictions – to “preclear” their proposed changes to voting practices with the federal government before going into place, the VRA opened the door for those previously silenced by discrimination to make their voices heard.
And the VRA’s success was clear almost immediately. After 1965, African American voter registration rates skyrocketed. The number of African Americans elected to public office increased fivefold within five years of the VRA’s passage. By the early 2000s, there were more than 9,000 African American elected officials in the United States – including the first African American president—and most were from areas required to preclear their laws with the federal government.
In 2013, however, in a case called Shelby County v. Holder, a deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court struck down a critical part of the VRA, essentially gutting the heart of the legislation. Although the court affirmed that the idea of preclearance was constitutional, it struck down the formula used to determine which states and localities would have to preclear their laws, effectively ending the practice of preclearance.
In a powerful dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away an umbrella in a rainstorm because you’re not getting wet.”
As Justice Ginsburg and the other dissenters had foreseen, the storms rolled in immediately. Within hours of the Supreme Court’s decision, Texas, North Carolina, and other states put into effect discriminatory voting laws that had been previously blocked by federal courts reviewing the policies as part of the preclearance procedure.
Texas, for example, immediately revived a redistricting plan that a federal court had refused to preclear before Shelby County, finding “more evidence of discriminatory intent than we have space or need to address here,” and put into effect a voter ID law that another federal court had blocked, concluding that “simply put, many Hispanics and African Americans who voted in the last elections will, because of the burdens imposed by SB 14, likely be unable to vote.”
Since then, states and localities around the county have passed dozens of laws that threaten to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters, disproportionately impacting communities of color, the elderly, people with disabilities, students, and poor people.
When the Supreme Court struck down the formula used to determine which states would have to preclear their laws, it expressly left open the door for Congress to create a new formula.
Recently, Congress has answered that call. A new bill has been introduced in both the House and the Senate – the Voting Rights Advancement Act – which would revive the crucial voting rights protections of the VRA by creating a new formula for preclearance, putting in place additional safeguards for voting, and once more helping to ensure that all Americans can have their say in our democracy.
In 2006, the last year in which Congress voted on reauthorization of the VRA, support for continuing the law’s critical safeguards was bipartisan and nearly unanimous. The vote was 390 to 33 in the House of Representatives (including over 150 current Representatives) and 98 to 0 in the Senate (including over 30 current Senators).
That same bipartisan support for the VRA is more important today than ever before. In this moment when our country seems polarized on so many issues and tensions are uncomfortably high, an endorsement from both sides of the aisle for the VRA would be a powerful sign of democratic renewal and national civility at a time when such behaviors are in short supply.
As we gear up for the 2016 election – the first presidential election since the Supreme Court crippled the VRA’s protections – we need, as President Johnson said, a new triumph for freedom to match any won on a battlefield.
On the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, it is time to legislate, not just commemorate.