Almost fifty years ago, on August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the historic Voting Rights Act (VRA), one of the most important and effective pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed. In the almost half century since its passage, the VRA has secured and safeguarded the right to vote for millions of Americans. Its success in eliminating discriminatory barriers to full civic participation and in advancing equal political participation at all levels of government is undeniable. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has supported passage of the VRA and every reauthorization since 1965, filed amicus briefs urging the Supreme Court to uphold the law, promoted awareness about the importance of the VRA, and encouraged the Department of Justice to use the VRA to protect voting rights for all.
The last time Congress extended the VRA, it did so after an exhaustive examination of voting discrimination and the impact of the VRA – days of hearings and thousands of pages of documentation. The legislation passed overwhelming: 390 to 33 in the House of Representatives and 98-0 in the Senate.
Notwithstanding this overwhelming support and exhaustively-documented legislative history – and the undeniably extraordinary impact of the VRA–a bitterly divided 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court struck down §4(b) of the VRA (the formula to determine which states and political subdivisions would have to preclear all voting changes) in Shelby County v. Holder , essentially gutting the heart of the legislation.
Almost immediately after the decision, states that had been subject to preclearance oversight for voting changes began enacting laws that threaten to disproportionately disenfranchise minority, young, poor, and elderly voters. Texas, for example, enacted a strict plan that federal courts had previously rejected, finding that there was “more evidence of discriminatory intent than we have space, or need, to address here….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.”
Texas was not alone in quickly moving to enact unwarranted voter ID laws and restrictions on voter registration and early voting opportunities. In fact, the efforts over the last few years to restrict voting rights around the country are unprecedented in modern America. The United States has not seen such a major legislative push to limit voting rights since right after Reconstruction
In Shelby County, the Court invited Congress to craft a new formula based on its guidance. This legislation, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, has now been introduced in both the House and the Senate. The measure would update the coverage formula, put in place additional safeguards for voting, and help ensure that all Americans can have their say in our democracy.
As we celebrate the anniversary of the VRA, it’s time to legislate, not just commemorate.