Congress Stalls on Restoring Full Voting Rights Act, as Atlantans Mark Act’s 50 Years
Photograph courtesy of Joyce Dorsey.
(APN) ATLANTA — August 06, 2015 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the day the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson.
However, as Atlanta advocates gathered at Wheat Street Baptist Church to commemorate, it was not solely a celebratory occasion, given that the Supreme Court of the U.S. struck down a key section of the law–provisions in sections 4 and 5 related to preclearance–two years ago in a case called Shelby v. Holder.
Last year, Democrats in Congress attempted to restore the law with little success.
In June of this year, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced legislation to repair the damage.
Lewis spoke at Wheat Street Baptist Church on the anniversary, recalling Bloody Sunday, the day in 1965 when he lead some six hundred Civil Rights Movement activists across the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma, Alabama, where they were met with violence by state troopers.
“People were beaten, arrested, jailed,” Lewis said. He himself suffered a concussion when a police officer struck him on the head with a baton.
That march, and the voter registration drives and other demonstrations that led up to it, catalyzed the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Much of the law’s power rested in Sections 4 and 5.
Section 5 mandated that states and localities with a history of voting discrimination receive federal approval from the U.S. Department of Justice, also called “preclearance,” before changing or introducing new voting laws.
These, mostly Southern, U.S. states and local jurisdictions could get off the preclearance list after ten years if they met certain qualifications.
Section 4 set the guidelines for determining which states and localities were subject to preclearance. That’s the section the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 2013, saying that the criteria were based on outdated measures.
Section 5 is still intact, but can’t be enforced unless Congress passes a law establishing a new Section 4.
“That federal oversight is necessary because Georgia has a [recent] history of doing things to prohibit people from voting,” Helen Butler, Director of Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda told APN.
“Reducing early voting times, consolidating precincts, having proof of citizenship. We shouldn’t have those encumbrances. For people who don’t have money to get proof of citizenship, it’s like a poll tax,” Butler said.
“In most countries they make voting easy, and there are some states in the U.S. that do the same thing: same day or automatic registration; vote by mail. They’re not having to overcome all these obstacles,” she said.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office faced an unsuccessful lawsuit last year when some 40,000 voter registration applications were allegedly not processed in Georgia.
Kemp’s office has also punitively targeted organizations that successfully mobilize minority voters.
And during this year’s legislative session, state lawmakers again attempted to roll back early voting.
On June 24, 2015, Leahy and Lewis introduced Senate and House versions of the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015.
“We can fix the voting rights act if we get out there and make some noise and push. Every Democratic member of the House. Every Democratic member of the United States Senate is prepared to support the Voting Rights Act… we need to say to our Republican colleagues and friends, bring the bill to the floor and we will pass it,” Lewis said in his speech at Wheat Street Baptist Church.
The bill subjects states to preclearance requirements if:
(1) 15 or more voting violations occurred in the State in the most recent 25-year period; or
(2) 10 or more voting violations occurred in the State in the most recent 25-year period, with at least one of the violations being committed by the State itself.
A locality within a state would be subject to preclearance if it committed three or more violations within the most recent 25-year period.
Once a state or locality is subject to preclearance, it must receive federal approval for:
- changes to methods of election
- changes to jurisdiction boundaries
- changes through redistricting
- changes in documentation or qualifications to vote
- changes to multi-language voting materials
- changes that reduce, consolidate or relocate voting locations
Last year, Leahy and Lewis co-sponsored a bill similar to the Voting Rights Advancement Act called the Voting Rights Amendment Act.
A watered down version of the current legislation, that bill was designed to garner Republican support.
Republicans signed on, but then the House speaker Eric Cantor reneged on his promise to bring it to the floor for a vote.
“We made compromises to get [Republican] support and they didn’t keep their word. So this time I decided to listen to the voters who had their right to vote blocked, and they asked for strong legislation that fully restores the protections of the VRA,” Leahy said in an interview with The Nation magazine.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act, the new bill, was referred to the House Judiciary Committee and then to a subcommittee on July 09, 2015.
It has yet to be scheduled for markup.
Butler is in favor of the bill, though she says an ideal solution would be a constitutional amendment that affirmatively setting forth the right to vote.
“I don’t think we are going to get a constitutional amendment, but I do think we can pass this law. I’m not sure that will happen, but I’m hoping that will happen,” she said.
Joyce Dorsey, CEO of the Fulton Atlanta Community Action Authority, is not as optimistic.
“This is one of the most stagnant Congresses we have ever seen,” she said.
On top of that, Dorsey says, there’s not enough advocacy from the streets.
“It was a nice pep rally,” she said of the event at Wheat Street Baptist Church.
“But I looked around the room and it was all the older generation. We need to engage Black Lives Matter. There’s still that gap,” she said.