“Voter suppression is the most existential crisis in our democracy.” — former Georgia state legislator and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams
The 1965 Voting Rights Act was gutted in 2013, leading to a proliferation of voter disenfranchisement and discrimination laws in states across the country. Since then, our elections have been marred by increasing voter suppression. Members of Congress have a plan to fight back by reinstating the key provisions of the VRA through the Voting Rights Advancement Act, or HR4. It’s a historic piece of legislation that will counteract regressive trends in our voting laws.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965
Nearly sixty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965, championed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., into law. This revolutionary legislation ended a century of draconian Jim Crow laws that denied many Americans access to the ballot box — giving voice to millions of minority and disenfranchised voters. It eliminated literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and other tools that states used to deny racial minorities the right to vote — and gave the federal government the power to oversee elections and local and state voting laws.
In the decades that followed, the Voting Rights Act was renewed and extended five separate times, and each time signed into law by a Republican president. The right to vote was viewed as sacrosanct, and the laws protecting it as non-partisan foundations of our democracy.
Shelby County v. Holder
The 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder dramatically changed America’s voting landscape by gutting the most significant legal protections in the Voting Rights Act.
In a 5-4 decision, the court struck down the “preclearance” provision of the VRA, which mandated that states with a history of discriminatory voting practices must preclear any proposed changes to voting laws with the federal government. The preclearance clause was a critical protection against regressive voting policies, and without it the VRA lost its most significant voter protection tool.
The Shelby County ruling emboldened states and local governments to pass a variety of voter suppression laws. Since 2013, we have seen a proliferation of stricter voter ID requirements, the curbing of voter registration drives, more restricted early or absentee voting, polling place consolidations, and other tactics that make it more difficult for voters to access the ballot. In 2016 alone, 14 states had new restrictive voting laws in place for the first time in a presidential election. By 2018, 6 new states had new restrictive laws in place, and two more have enacted them so far in 2019. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, since 2010, when the efforts to curb voting rights that led to the Shelby County decision began in earnest, 25 states have enacted legislation to restrict voting access.
“The election of 2016 was a wakeup call. Voters were threatened and given false information. Hundreds of thousands of voters were purged from the rolls all over the country. People who had voted for decades were turned away from the polls. What happened? It was the first election in over 50 years without the protection of the Voting Rights Act.” — Representative John Lewis (D-GA)
Voter Suppression in Our Recent Elections
Voter suppression has undeniably influenced the outcome of recent elections. An MIT study found that 12 percent of voters encountered an issue while voting in the 2016 presidential election. In Wisconsin, a state narrowly lost by Hillary Clinton, as many as 45,000 people were deterred from voting due to strict voter ID laws passed after the Shelby County ruling. More recently, Congress has opened an investigation into Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race, which was marred by voting irregularities and voter discrimination.
We no longer see outright bans, literacy tests and grandfather clauses in our elections, but disenfranchisement has taken on different guises — and it’s up to us to fight it in every form. If we want elections to be free, fair, and accessible, we must restore the VRA.
Fighting Back With HR4
The reality of voter suppression has come into sharp relief, which is why Congressional Democrats have moved forward with bold action to restore the VRA. HR4 would reinstate the preclearance powers of the Voting Rights Act — creating a process by which states and districts with a history of voting discrimination must approve changes to voting policy with the federal government before they can become law. We must regain this key mechanism for fighting the voter discrimination that disproportionately falls on minority communities.
So far, we’ve made important progress towards passing HR4. The bill successfully passed in the House of Representatives on December 6, 2019 — and it next it will move to the Senate for a vote.