Congressional Leaders Move Ahead on Voting Rights Measure

January 23, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

Lawmakers in Congress are not giving up on an effort to counter some of the state laws that have made it increasingly difficult to vote and that helped create long lines and waiting times for voters during November’s general elections.

Earlier today, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), and other House members, reintroduced the Voter Empowerment Act, while Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced a companion version in the Senate.

Over the past couple of years, state Republican lawmakers have created, with varying degrees of success, hurdles to voting. Those obstacles, such as limiting early voting, creating onerous voter ID requirements, and making it more difficult to conduct voter registration drives, were targeted largely at urban voters, minorities, college students and the elderly. (Victoria Bassetti, author of Electoral Dysfunction: A Survival Manual for American Voters wrote last fall about the cumbersome voting process in America, saying it mystified other countries. “In the United States, we put the burden on the voter. And in doing so, we keep company with nations such as the Bahamas, Belize and Burundi,” she wrote for The Washington Post.

During the lame-duck session of Congress, the Senate Judiciary Committee conducted a hearing to examine some of measures hampering voters, and several of those measures were produced by states, such as Texas, South Carolina, and parts of Florida that are covered by the Voting Rights Act. Specifically Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires covered jurisdictions – those with the worst histories and patterns of racial discrimination in voting – to obtain preclearance for any changes to their voting procedures from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C. Several of the witnesses argued that beyond new federal efforts to modernize voting nationwide, Section 5 was still essential to ensure that newly created voting procedures do not discriminate against minority voters. (The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear oral arguments in a case from Shelby County, Ala., challenging the constitutionality of Section 5.)

In reintroducing today’s measure, Rep. Lewis, a hero of the Civil Rights Movement, noted that 49 years ago the 24th Amendment was ratified, banning the infamous Jim Crow era poll tax.

“The Right to vote is precious, almost sacred,” Lewis said in a prepared statement. “Too many people in this country had to give their lives to exercise a right already guaranteed them by the Constitution. Outlawing the poll tax 49 years ago, does not mean we were finished with protecting democratic freedom. New challenges to equal access still arise today. To be a credible voice for equal justice abroad, we must be watchful here at home to alleviate every historic and current impediment to the democratic process.”

The Department of Justice challenged and successfully blocked some of the onerous voter ID laws in some of the Sec. 5 jurisdictions. Last year, when describing the DOJ’s efforts to combat the string of new voting impediments, Attorney General Eric Holder likened some of the measures to the poll tax. He noted that for many Americans, the new laws would do nothing but make it more difficult for some of the most vulnerable to participate in democracy. But the strident efforts of right-wing lawmakers to suppress the vote may have backfired. Polls show that many minorities overcame the obstacles to ensure their voices were heard and their votes counted.

Nevertheless, it is doubtful the proponents of rigid voting procedures are going to cease their work to create even more hurdles to voting. And as Bassetti and many others have noted, it shouldn’t be this way – voting should not be a burden. So the champions of voting rights, such as the NAACP LDF and many others must continue their work to protect voting rights and seek reform of voting procedures, ones that will expand, not limit voting.