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Nelson Writes in Reuters on Importance of Passing Voting Rights Amendment Act

Monday, July 7, 2014

In Reuters "The Great Debate," Janai Nelson, LDF's Associate Director-Counsel, argues "swift and dauntless action is needed in both houses of Congress, however, to ensure that voting remains an equal opportunity exercise for all Americans, and that Congress remains a relevant force in the defense of voting rights in places like Mississippi, Texas, Georgia and beyond." She powerfully calls for the passage of the Voting Rights Amendment Act -- a modern, flexible, forward-looking piece of legislation introduced by bipartisan members of Congress in the wake of the Supreme Court's devastating decision in Shelby County, Alabama. v. Holder.

Click here to take action and urge Congress to strengthen and pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014.


Think we don’t need to update the Voting Rights Act? Check out Tuesday’s primaries.

By Janai S. Nelson
June 25, 2014

The door is open for Congress to repair the nation’s most transformative election law, which was neutered by the U.S. Supreme Court a year ago today.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in his majority opinion for Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, issued Congress a written invitation to renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after striking down Section 4 of the act and disabling the strongest safety check against racial discrimination in voting.  The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday on the Voting Rights Amendment Act shows that his invitation did not fall on deaf ears or timid hearts.

Swift and dauntless action is needed in both houses of Congress, however, to ensure that voting remains an equal opportunity exercise for all Americans, and that Congress remains a relevant force in the defense of voting rights in places like Mississippi, Texas, Georgia and beyond.

On Tuesday, conservative groups marshaled poll watchers for the senatorial primary run-off in Mississippi. Though a court blocked their presence inside polling places, their position just outside threatened to intimidate voters who had come to cast their ballots — echoing the power that poll watchers exercised throughout the Jim Crow South.

This is one example of potential voter suppression that minority voters have confronted in the year since the Shelby decision was handed down. The countdown to the next midterm and general elections has already begun and, since that ruling, states across the South and beyond have resurrected discriminatory voting restrictions — and invented new ones.

Wednesday’s Senate hearing will likely focus on the state of minority voting rights, which lack pre-clearance protection for the first time in almost 50 years. Whether you consider the voucher tests in Alabama that require voters be verified by two poll workers in order for them to vote without an ID; cuts to early voting in Florida that more than half of all black voters relied on, or stringent voter ID laws in Texas that a federal court previously ruled discriminated against minority voters, the familiar creep of voter suppression is undeniable.

Voter suppression is also active at the local level. For example, after Shelby, election officials in Galveston County, Texas, resurrected a plan to halve the number of districts for constables and justices of the peace from eight to four. They have carried out this plan — though the Justice Department had rejected it as discriminatory under the Voting Rights Act and despite the fact that the districts were a remedy for past discrimination. In both Augusta-Richmond and Macon, Georgia, predominantly black jurisdictions, election officials scheduled primary elections in the summer — when black voter turnout is at its lowest. A change that Section 5 would have most likely blocked.

There’s also the city of Calera in Shelby County, Alabama, where the Supreme Court case originated. Because of the Roberts Court’s decision, the discriminatory annexation efforts that initially cost Calera its only African-American councilman — before successful litigation under the Voting Rights Act compelled a new election — would now be left unchecked.

I and others predicted this potential fallout in a special Reuters’ Great Debate legal forum before the Shelby decision. Specifically, I noted that, without Section 5, “race would enter the rooms of some of this country’s most troubled jurisdictions without the restraint of federal oversight — providing the opportunity, if not the invitation, for retrogression and retrenchment.”

Sadly, these predictions have come to pass in less than a year.

We will surely see more examples of voter suppression in the months and years to come if Section 5 is not restored. So Congress must act swiftly to move the Voting Rights Amendment Act forward with a hearing in the House and, ultimately, a vote for its passage.

The amendment is designed to restore crucial elements of the landmark act and strengthen its safeguards against racial and language discrimination in voting. It updates the formula for identifying jurisdictions that must receive federal oversight by relying on voting violations within the past 15 years as a trigger. It demands crucial advance notice and disclosure of any changes in election law nationwide, increases deployment of federal observers and expands Washington’s ability to suspend potentially discriminatory state laws pending litigation.

Click here to read the full op-ed.