Rights under siege: On the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, activists are fighting back
Today the United States commemorates 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) into law—a landmark victory made possible by the efforts of a sustained, national political movement. Today’s anniversary presents another opportunity to honor those hundreds who marched in protest against practices that denied African Americans their right to vote—men and women who were brutally attacked by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to the shock of a watching nation. The televised images of that violence hastened the passage of the VRA, widely recognized as the nation’s most effective piece of civil rights legislation.
The VRA empowered the federal government to oversee elections in states with racially discriminatory voting practices, outlawing the use of procedures such as literacy tests for all American voters. The landmark legislation not only broadened the franchise to African Americans; it opened access to poor Whites and others who had also been denied their right to participate in the electoral process. Yet as we remember this hard-fought triumph, we must remain vigilant about protecting the right to vote. Fifty years after the passage of the VRA, today we are fighting to defend those rights all over again.
Today’s VRA has been weakened, two years after the Supreme Court gutted essential protections in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision. This ruling struck down the coverage formula for Section 5, which required federal pre-approval of new voting practices in states with egregious histories of discrimination, stopping discriminatory laws before they could take effect. Since then, we have seen the devastating effects of a damaged VRA. Dozens of states, including Texas, Virginia, Alabama, and Mississippi, have been emboldened to enact any and all restrictions that make it harder to vote.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than in North Carolina—the first state to enact a voter suppression bill after Shelby, just weeks after the ruling. It also bears the distinction of being the worst voter suppression law the nation has seen since 1965.
Known as H.B. 589, the law targets every aspect of the voting process: who can vote, where they can vote, when they can vote, and how they can vote. Among other provisions, it shortens the early voting period by a full week, eliminates same-day registration, prohibits provisional ballots cast out of precinct from being counted, cuts a successful pre-registration program for 16- and 17-year-olds, and implements a restrictive photo ID requirement. Targeting the very measures that North Carolina’s African-American and Latino voters used at significantly higher rates than White voters, each piece of the bill has a disproportionate impact on North Carolina’s voters of color.
Last week, on behalf of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, the national civil rights organization Advancement Project and co-counsel, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, wrapped up three weeks at trial to defeat this harmful measure. From a federal court in Winston-Salem, our legal team argued that H.B. 589 discriminates against African-American and Latino voters, in violation of Section 2 of the VRA. Section 2, which was not altered by the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision, prohibits voting policies that result in the denial or abridgement of voting on the basis of race—laws like North Carolina’s.
H.B. 589 was a calculated effort by politicians to manipulate the voting rules—exactly the type of scheme the VRA was signed to prevent. In the 2012 election, for example, 70 percent of African Americans who voted in North Carolina used early voting. And though African Americans comprised 22 percent of the state’s voters, they made up 41 percent of those who used same-day registration. Worse still, the North Carolina General Assembly knew this law would discriminate against African-American voters after receiving clear data on the impact it would have.
Yet just like the determined people of Selma 50 years ago, North Carolinians are fighting back. The statewide Forward Together Moral Movement, a grassroots, multiracial coalition convened by the North Carolina NAACP, has been organizing for years—and is continuing to fight—against the state’s regressive agenda. On the first day of trial last month, our legal team emerged from the courthouse to see thousands of people marching through the streets of Winston-Salem, joining the call for equal voting rights.
Over weeks of testimony, we heard from experts, legislators and, most importantly, the voters who have been directly harmed by the law. This included voters who waited in in long lines in 2014 only to find that they were in the wrong precinct, without enough time to get to the correct location and have their vote counted; as well as voters who lost the opportunity to cast their ballot because same-day registration was no longer available. By speaking out and sharing their stories, these North Carolinians are helping write a new chapter in the story of our nation’s continued fight for a just democracy.
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the VRA, it is against the backdrop of the story of North Carolina, awaiting another critical turning point for our nation. History is repeating itself again, with attacks on voting being met by the courage of organized people. And again, we will win.
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