How the Voting Rights Act, a Cornerstone of Civil Rights Law, Has Come Under Threat

Myrna Perez


From New America Media:


Since the beginning of 2011, states across the country have passed new laws restricting the right to vote. From voter ID to curbs on early voting and registration drives, these controversial measures could make it harder for millions of Americans to vote this year, including a disproportionate number of minority, young, and elderly voters. The photo ID law passed by Texas, for example, could prevent hundreds of thousands of eligible voters from casting a ballot, including a disproportionate number of minorities, as the data shows.


Voting rights advocates are fighting these laws in the courts, but in addition to these direct attacks on the franchise, opponents are now threatening a cornerstone of American civil rights law — the Voting Rights Act (VRA).


Decades ago, our nation passed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) to combat discrimination in voting. It has successfully protected voters against decades of discriminatory measures that had disenfranchised African Americans, Latinos, and many other Americans. The VRA was even reauthorized in 2006 with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, and it was signed by President George W. Bush. Elected officials in both parties recognized the VRA is still needed because discrimination against minority voters continues to this day. For example, in recent years, the Justice Department forced Texas to stop discriminatory actions against voters at historically black colleges and universities.


Under Section 5 of the VRA, changes to election laws in certain states with a demonstrated history of discrimination, like Texas, must be “pre-cleared” (reviewed and approved) by the Department of Justice or a D.C. federal court before they can be implemented. To obtain pre-clearance of its photo ID law, all Texas needed to do was demonstrate that this law does not make minority voters worse off. The state could not do it.


“Even using the data most favorable to the state, Hispanics disproportionately lack either a driver’s license or a personal identification card,” wrote Justice Department official Thomas Perez in a letter denying pre-clearance.


Because the state wants to implement this discriminatory law, and because the Voting Rights Act prevents them from doing so, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has claimed in federal court that Section 5 of the VRA is unconstitutional.


Following a year that saw the biggest rollbacks of voting rights in a generation, the actions of Texas and other states prove the continuing need for the protections provided by the Voting Rights Act. It also underscores the urgency of maintaining strong civil rights laws.


To be sure, all Americans want to protect the integrity of our elections. But there are better options than requiring voters to produce the kind of government-issued ID that one in ten voters do not have, including 25 percent of African Americans and 16 percent of Latinos.


America has made great progress toward guaranteeing the fundamental right to vote for all our eligible citizens. We cannot afford to turn back the clock to an era when politically motivated laws prevented too many of us from exercising our constitutional right to vote. The Voting Rights Act forbids and prevents such activity and must be upheld.


Author Bio:

Myrna Perez serves as Senior Counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.


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