by Harry Baumgarten, Inaugural Partner Legal Fellow at the Voting Rights Institute
This post originally appeared on the blog of the Campaign Legal Center.
Members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives will gather tomorrow to award the foot soldiers of Bloody Sunday, Turnaround Tuesday and the final Selma to Montgomery March with the Congressional Gold Medal. This award constitutes the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress and marks a fitting tribute to the brave men and women who risked life and limb so that “every American citizen would be able to exercise their constitutional right to vote and have their voices heard.”
Yet, however befitting and overdue this award may be, we must not accept it as a substitute for meaningful legislative action to safeguard the fundamental right to vote.
Minority voting rights are perhaps more imperiled today than at any time since these brave marchers gathered at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. Just three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, despite four reauthorizations and thousands of pages of congressional findings that showcased why the law was still needed. The 2013 decision, Shelby County v. Holder, dismantled the VRA’s coverage formula, which determined which states and local jurisdictions were required to gain approval from the Department of Justice or a federal court before making changes to their electoral laws and procedures due to histories of racial discrimination in voting.
Many of the states that would have once needed to seek preclearance from the DOJ acted within hours of the Supreme Court’s ruling, implementing onerous voting restrictions, such as voter ID laws, that had the intent and effect of burdening minority access to the polls. These laws threaten to disenfranchise millions of people across the country and would previously have been barred by the Voting Rights Act. Scarily, without congressional action, 2016 will likely mark the first presidential election in more than 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.