51 Years After the VRA, Our Vote is Still Vulnerable

Posted on 08/12/2016 @ 12:45 AM

By: Geoffrey Nolan, LULAC National Communications Associate

Last Saturday marked the 51st anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As one of the landmark pieces of civil rights legislation signed into law by President Johnson, the VRA extended crucial civil rights protections to all Americans. For decades, the VRA helped protect the right to vote for millions of vulnerable minority Americans in areas where historic racism had left them disenfranchised.

After being gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Shelby v. Holder decision, laws aimed at suppressing the voting power of minority communities sprung up across the United States. However, over the past couple of weeks, the courts have taken action and struck down laws in North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Kansas that were found to discriminate against minority voters. As the 2016 Presidential election approaches—the first without federal voting protections since the passage of the VRA—it’s important that we harness the power of these court victories against voter suppression and demand that Congress take action to restore the VRA.

Voting is one of the cornerstones of American democracy. The idea of the eligible voter has evolved over time to include non-landowners, women, and racial minorities, and we can take pride in the fact that more people than ever have the right and the opportunity to play a direct role in American democracy. For such an important task, it makes sense to make it easier to vote so that as many Americans as possible can participate. States like California have led the charge and have enacted legislation that makes it easier for people to vote, such as automatic registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles, extending early voting periods, and allowing voters to access online registration. Efforts like these make voting easier, helping create a more robust democratic society—something that every American should see as a good thing.

Unfortunately, not all states have followed California’s lead. The ink was barely dry on the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision when lawmakers in states and counties formerly covered by the VRA preclearance procedure rushed to enact new voting laws. In North Carolina, lawmakers enacted a voting law with strict ID requirements, limitations on early voting, and the elimination of same-day registration. In Texas, voters could only show seven forms of state-approved ID to cast their ballot. Passports, driver licenses, and gun licenses were all valid forms of ID, but a student ID—even from a Texas public school—did not qualify.

Ever since the Shelby decision, civil rights advocates across the country began to challenge these rulings—even without strong congressional legislation to aid their cases. Despite this, advocates continued their fight—and won. In July 2016, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Texas ID Law had a discriminatory impact on voters and urged Texas to make the necessary changes to remedy this issue. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in the North Carolina case went even further, striking down the North Carolina ID law after concluding that it was passed with specific intent to prevent African-Americans from voting after lawmakers requested information on what voting practices African-Americans utilized and then severely limited those practices through legislation.

Despite 51 years since it’s signing, current events show us that the fight for the right to vote is not over. The Texas and North Carolina cases demonstrate that there is a concerted effort among state lawmakers to suppress the vote of certain voting blocks that do not vote the way that they want them to. It’s important that we remain vigilant in our communities to ensure that no eligible voter faces any obstacles that prevent them from exercising their right to vote. In her address at the 87th annual LULAC National Convention, U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch stated that the number of federal election observers will be significantly reduced due to the Shelby decision, placing much more responsibility on local communities to ensure that their elections are fair. However, relying on the goodwill of individuals and local communities is not enough. States must be held accountable to strong federal protections that prevent them from disenfranchising their own citizens. Moving forward, LULAC will continue to advocate for a restored Voting Rights Act that effectively protects ALL citizens and their sacred right to vote.

Geoffrey Nolan is a Communications Associate at LULAC National. He graduated from the University of Georgia, with degrees in International Affairs and Spanish.

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