The VRA and the Path to Freedom

lionelby Lionel Washington, Citizens Project Board Member

The US Supreme Court is hearing a case from Shelby County Alabama challenging the 1965 Voting Rights Act on the grounds it violates Tenth Amendment to Constitution protecting states’ rights.  Shelby County argues that the section 5 provision of the Voting Rights Act calling for pre-clearance from the Federal Government to review any changes to that state’s voting laws that might be discriminatory in nature or disenfranchise a specific group of voters. Shelby County also argues that the VRA does not reflect the modern values of Shelby County and the Supreme Court should overturn the VRA to protect the state sovereignty of Alabama.

Those who know American history understand all too well that establishing and upholding voting rights for all citizens has been a long a treacherous path toward freedom and democracy. The reality is that all over America millions of voters are still being disenfranchised regardless of race.  From Kathleen Harris in Florida in 2000 to Kenneth Blackwell in Ohio to Scott Gessler in Colorado in 2012, voting administrators are setting examples of how political interests can corrupt the democratic process.  Florida, Ohio, and Colorado are not covered under section 5 of the VRA, and therefore can make any changes to the election law without Federal review.  We submit that not only should the Voting Right Act be re-authorized, it should be expanded to all 50 states and made permanent to avoid the type of unilateral decision-making that’s recently disenfranchised thousands of eligible voters nationwide.

While civic organizations and state legislators were able to fend off the attacks on voting and democracy here in Colorado, other states were not so fortunate.  Secretaries of State all over the country have demonstrated a willingness to change voting laws for political gain. An idea that is being promoted among conservative talk radio show hosts is “that the VRA promotes racial entitlement”.

In November 2012 only 120 million Americans turned out to vote in country of 330 million. That means Americans everywhere are either struggling with the right to vote, feeling that their vote won’t matter, or feeling uninspired by the democratic process.  No matter what’s causing the lower turnout, we must take steps to eliminate obstacles to voting, voter apathy, and threats to democracy. We can start with the Voting Rights Act.

voting-rights-lbjThe VRA was a pillar of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s and continues to be relevant today, as it prohibits states from imposing any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure … to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” The Voting Rights Act was signed into law because people were dying for their right to vote in Selma, Alabama while some of those same people were fighting for democracy in Vietnam.

Today, we know all too well the story of Desiline Victor, the 102-year-old voter from Miami in the November 2012 election who waited three hours to vote. This should remind all Americans of the precious sacredness the right to vote is in our society as well as the dysfunction we still face in expanding our democracy. The Supreme Court has an obligation to protect the Voting Rights Act not just for people of color, but for all Americans.

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