*This piece originally appeared on Project Vote’s Voting Matters.
Forty-ninth anniversaries don’t usually garner much attention, but today a 49th anniversary—though filled with pathos—is worth commemorating. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1964. Often called the “crown jewel” of the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act has now lost a bit of its luster, tarnished by the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder.
The passage of the Voting Rights Act took barely four months after the President sent the bill to Congress; he called it “one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom.” And it passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both chambers, foreshadowing the four reauthorization votes that reaffirmed its vitality over the years since. The last, in 2006, passed by a vote of 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House. But no more.
Since the Supreme Court eviscerated preclearance, one of the most important tools written into the VRA to fight racial discrimination, the law’s historical bipartisan support seems but a distant memory. Preclearance requires states and smaller jurisdictions with particularly troubling histories of voting discrimination to secure federal approval in advance for any voting changes. The law swept broadly, recognizing that even seemingly trivial statutory or administrative changes often operate to disadvantage racial and language minorities. One of its most significant advantages was to mitigate the necessity to file expensive and time-consuming lawsuits to redress voting discrimination on a case-by-case basis. As part of the VRA, it was reauthorized four times. But no more.