Photo: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act as Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders look on. Photo by Yoichi Okamoto courtesy of the LBJ library.
Note: this is a guest post by Elisabeth MacNamara, President of the League of Women Voters. Rooted in the movement that secured the right to vote for women, the League of Women Voters is a non-partisan organization that encourages informed and active participation in government by working to educate voters and to increase understanding of major public policy issues, including protecting and engaging voters, reforming money in politics, and defending the environment.
In 1920, Carrie Chapman Catt founded the League of Women Voters to help democratize the right to vote. Yet over nine decades later, the League is fighting one of the greatest voting rights battles yet. On February 27th, the Supreme Court will review Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, a case that questions the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, the landmark legislation that outlawed racial discrimination in state voting practices. Should the Court rule against the VRA in Shelby v. Holder, millions of Americans could face disenfranchisement.
The Voting Rights Act, which is considered to be the most effective civil rights statute enacted by Congress, was designed to banish the “blight of racial discrimination in voting.” In particular, Section 5 of the VRA gives teeth to the law by requiring that specific states or jurisdictions with histories of discriminatory voting practices obtain “preclearance,” or federal approval, for proposed changes to elections laws to ensure new laws are not discriminatory. In Shelby v. Holder, Shelby County, Alabama, argues that preclearance is unnecessary because voting discrimination is a problem of the past.
Yet the evidence suggests otherwise: Since 1982, Section 5 has helped defeat approximately 2,400 discriminatory voting changes in the 16 states in which it has jurisdiction. Experts cite a number of recent cases in which lawmakers sought to make election changes that would have disenfranchised minority voters, such as attempts to require documentary proof of citizenship or a government-issued photo ID, cutbacks to early voting, and the purging of voter lists.
Fortunately, a number of human and civil rights organizations recognize the importance of Section 5 and agree with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that Section 5 of the VRA is the “keystone of our voting rights.” Along with the likes of the Brennan Center for Justice, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the American Bar Association, the League of Women Voters of the U.S. and the League of Women Voters of South Carolina (LWVSC) recently submitted amicus briefs underscoring how Section 5 remains indispensable in protecting Americans’ right to vote.
When the VRA was last reauthorized a mere seven years ago in 2006, Congress declared that without its protections, “racial and language minority citizens will be deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.” This assertion still rings true today, as the voting rights of millions of Americans are at risk should the Supreme Court rule against Section 5. Without Section 5, “We will see the clock turned back on our country,” said NAACP President Ben Jealous, and we can expect to see states consider a range of restrictions on voting unparalleled since the days of Jim Crow.
For more than 90 years, the League of Women Voters has worked to protect every American citizen’s right to vote. As February 27th approaches and the Supreme Court prepares to review Shelby County v. Holder, we hope that the Justices recognize the crucial role that Section 5 plays in preventing discrimination and upholding our democracy.
Join me and fellow supporters of the League of Women Voters and pledge to protect the Voting Rights Act and the right to vote for all eligible citizens.