Below are Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and Charles Ogletree’s initial reactions to the Supreme Court Decision in Shelby County, vs. Alabama. These brief op-eds were published in the Washington Post on June 25, 2013.
Democratic representative from Georgia
The Supreme Court has stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act. Although the court did not deny that voter discrimination still exists, it gutted the most powerful tool this nation has ever had to stop discriminatory voting practices from becoming law. Those justices were never beaten or jailed for trying to register to vote. They have no friends who gave their lives for the right to vote. I want to say to them, Come and walk in my shoes.
I disagree that because the incidence of voter discrimination is not as “pervasive, widespread or rampant” as it was in 1965 that the contemporary problems are not a valid basis for scrutiny. In a democracy, one act of voter discrimination should be too much. It took nearly 100 years, from 1865 to 1965, for effective voting rights legislation to be passed. The advances of the Reconstruction period — when some freed slaves were elected to Congress — were erased in a few short years, and for decades this nation turned a blind eye to some of the worst and most brutal violations of human and civil rights.
Also, the purpose of the Voting Rights Act is not to increase the numbers of minority voters or elected officials. That is a byproduct of its effectiveness. The purpose of the act is to stop discriminatory practices from becoming law. There are more black elected officials in Mississippi today not because attempts to discriminate against voters ceased but because the Voting Rights Act kept those attempts from becoming law. Just hours after the court’s decision was announced Thursday, Texas said it would immediately implement the same voter ID law declared illegal by the Justice Department.
We do not want to go back. We must move forward. I think it is very encouraging that some members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, have indicated a willingness to fix this problem. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are already meeting. I call upon my colleagues to join in a bipartisan fashion as we did in 2006 and find a way to protect access to the ballot box for all Americans.
Professor at Harvard Law School; founding and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.
The decision in Shelby County v. Holder has my father, a native of Alabama, turning in his grave. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 made this critical right accessible to all citizens.
With its deeply misguided decision to invalidate the formula used to identify states and jurisdictions requiring pre-clearance approval, five justices have chosen to rip out what Rep. John Lewis has called the “heart and soul” of the Voting Rights Act. The result is a patient gasping for breath. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg summed up the illogic of this decision brilliantly: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
This decision moves us backward at a time when voting rights are being threatened at a level we haven’t witnessed in decades — indeed, since before the Voting Rights Act was passed. Granted, those seeking to disenfranchise “undesirable” voters no longer use literacy tests. Their strategies are more sophisticated now, but their intent is all too familiar. As a rapidly growing number of states impose new restrictions on voting, we can see that voter suppression is alive and well. Consider, for example, the photo identification requirements that have passed in 20 state legislatures since 2003. Ostensibly designed to prevent in-person “voter fraud” (which research has shown is practically nonexistent), these laws make it harder for members of minority groups — youth, the poor, women, the elderly or anyone who does not possess a government-issued photo identification — to vote. Who are they kidding? All but one of these laws were passed by Republican legislatures and signed by Republican governors. A few legislators privately admitted the obvious: these laws are designed to keep certain voters away from the ballot box. To limit the long-term damage of this decision, Congress must move swiftly to update the legislation’s formula so that the heart of the Voting Rights Act can be restored.