Three Years After Shelby, We Still Need Congress to Restore the VRA

Posted on 06/25/2016 @ 12:45 AM

By: Alejandro Oms, LULAC National Policy and Legislation Intern

Fifty-one years ago, thousands of protesters left Selma, Alabama to march to Montgomery with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in order to fight for equality at the voting booth. The months leading up to the march were filled with violence against peaceful protesters and growing national pressure to protect everyone’s right to vote. That August, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to prevent discriminatory voter laws. Although it would take ten years for the VRA to be properly expanded to include Latinos, the legislation protected minority voters in states and counties with histories of discrimination for almost fifty years. Three years ago in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court determined that the formula that determined which states qualified for “preclearance” in section 4 of the VRA was unconstitutional. Previously, states in the Deep South, the Southwest, and other cities and counties had to seek approval from the federal government when changing their voting laws to ensure that they were not targeting vulnerable minorities groups such as Latinos and African Americans.

One of the hallmarks of the VRA was that it protected American citizens from all walks of life during its forty-eight years. Vice President of Litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) Nina Perales used the VRA to protect the voting rights of Latinos for years. Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, Perales penned an opinion piece on the importance of the case and its potential consequences. At least one of Arizona’s redistricting plans each cycle between 1975 and 2013 had been rejected under the VRA because the new districts would intentionally harm the Latino community’s ability to represent itself in government. In that same time frame, the VRA prevented implementation of more than two hundred election laws in Texas that would have been detrimental to Latino representation.

This autumn’s election will be the first presidential election without the protections of the VRA. Without strong federal protections, we have already seen some of the effects of the Shelby County decision. Several states have taken advantage of lax regulations and have implemented voter identification laws, lessened the amount of early voting, and implemented other hindrances in registering to vote, which disproportionately affect minorities. One notable controversy since the end of the VRA was the contested Arizona Democratic Primary of the 2016 election cycle where counties in Arizona with large Latino populations contained almost 75% less voting locations than they did in 2012.

Despite massive bipartisan support for the restoration of the VRA, Congress has continually failed to pass legislation with an updated coverage formula to implement the act within the parameters of the Supreme Court ruling. In the face of congressional inaction, state governments continue to suppress voters of color in the name of saving money and combating voter fraud. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts praised the VRA and the good it achieved. The issue the Court found was not in the spirit of the Act, but in its application formula. Chief Justice Roberts explicitly states, “Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions.” The Court hoped that Congress would do its job and update the formula to protect minorities in a modern age throughout the entire country.

As it always has, LULAC will continue to encourage voter registration and civic participation, despite congressional inaction to protect the rights of Latinos to vote. We will be holding registration drives through the election season. Click here for more voter registration information based on your state. If you would like to volunteer to help our registration drives, Click here.

Alejandro Oms is a Policy and Legislation Intern at the LULAC National Office in Washington, D.C. He is a recent graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, with a degree in political science and certificate in international relations.

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