Recent court decisions fuel renewed push for restoring the Voting Rights Act
"What happened on July 29th is history, but the celebration is over. There are ongoing challenges we have to face."
So said attorney Irv Joyner as he addressed the crowd at a voting rights gathering in Raleigh, North Carolina, called by the state NAACP on Aug. 6, the 51st anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Eight days earlier, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, had struck down North Carolina's so-called "monster" voting law, ruling that it was discriminatory in both intent and outcome. The decision adds North Carolina to the list of states — including Texas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas, and North Dakota — where restrictive voting laws have been overturned recently.
In an op-ed for Time magazine, Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said these decisions "have been a triumphant win for voting rights advocates, but they are not the long-term answer."
"As we face the first presidential election without a fully functioning VRA," he wrote, "it is more critical than ever to restore the full powers and protections of the law."
Greenblatt observed that "the backdrop of the latest set of rulings paints a bleaker picture — one of legislatures around the country passing laws that discriminate against voters of color."
The same week the 4th Circuit found North Carolina's law targeted African Americans "with almost surgical precision," the 5th Circuit ordered revisions to Texas' voter ID law, which the court found "would disenfranchise 600,000 eligible voters, including a disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinos."
The fact that these laws could not have passed under the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act — which required Department of Justice approval of election changes in jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination, and which the U.S. Supreme Court effectively struck down in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision — underscores why civil rights advocates are calling for restoration of the law.
To that end, national NAACP President Cornell William Brooks led a sit-in this week inside the Roanoke office of U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
The protesters called on Goodlatte to hold hearings on the Voting Rights Advancement Act, legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Alabama) to restore the VRA's preclearance provision. It's one of two VRA restoration bills that have been introduced in Congress, the other being the Voting Rights Amendment Act sponsored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin). To date, Goodlatte has not granted a hearing for either bill. They take different approaches to re-establishing preclearance, with Sewell's bill covering more jurisdictions.
The six-hour protest ended when Brooks, along with Stephen Green, national director of the NAACP Youth and College Division, were arrested and charged with trespassing. But Goodlatte remained unmoved. In a statement he made following the sit-in, the congressman claimed that the Voting Rights Act is working fine.
"Federal courts have been actively using the VRA, upholding and striking down various state laws," Goodlatte said.
While it's true that attorneys, including those who argued against the North Carolina voting law, have been using the remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act to prove the unconstitutionality of voter suppression laws, there would not be a need for litigation if preclearance had not been struck down.
For instance, in Goodlatte's own state of Virginia, a voter ID law that was approved by the Justice Department was passed in 2012. But soon after the Shelby decision, with the preclearance requirement gone, the state made the law more restrictive. The law was upheld by a federal judge in May but remains under appeal. Unless changes are made before the presidential election, thousands of Virginia voters are at risk of being disenfranchised.
A decade ago, the Voting Rights Act with the preclearance provision had bipartisan support. In fact, Goodlatte himself voted for the law's reauthorization in 2006. But today, voting rights advocates are engaged in a struggle to restore the law — and they are hoping that these recent court victories will help to make their case.
Rebekah is a research associate at the Institute for Southern Studies and writer for Facing South.