Caroline Fredrickson: Voting Rights Under Fire: Why We Still Need Section 5

They were young African-Americans and supporters of equality marching peacefully from Selma, Ala. to the state’s capital to protest the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson by police and the denial of voting rights when they were attacked by scores of state police and others, spewing tear gas beating the protestors with billy clubs. Those brutal, revolting attacks were aired nationally by major TV networks, like ABC would prove a catalyst for one of the nation’s most compelling civil rights laws, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Quickly after what was to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” President Lyndon B. Johnson went before a joint session of Congress and unveiled the voting rights measure and provided a stirring, impassioned call for an end to oppression and an expansion of freedom.

LBJ successfully moved the measure through Congress and Voting Rights Act (VRA) became a landmark law aimed at prohibiting states from abridging the right to vote, with a special focus on the states with long histories of voting discrimination. That focus would be enforced by Sec. 5, which requires those jurisdictions and localities, most of them in the south, to obtain approval from the Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for any proposed changes to their voting procedures, to ensure they could not have discriminatory effect on minority voters.

As noted by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, this nation still has a way to go before state disfranchisement is truly a thing of the past. The committee is holding a hearing today entitled “The State of the Right to Vote After the 2012 Election,” which will feature testimony from, among others, former Florida governor Charlie Crist, Nina Perales, Vice President of Litigation of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Secretary of State of Iowa Matt Schultz.

Indeed, the recent elections provided a plethora of voting rights issues. As we noted on ACS’s blog earlier this year, the burdens on voters in 2012 elections included more than just long lines; they included new obstacles such as photo ID requirements, shortened voting hours, limiting voter registration drives and lawmakers unwilling to budge much on the new restrictions. Most of these initiatives occurred in jurisdictions covered by Sec. 5.

In February, the U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in when it hears arguments in a case that challenges the constitutionality of Sec. 5, Shelby County [Alabama] v. Holder. Shelby County officials claim, in part, that discrimination is a thing of the past and therefore pre-clearance should be dropped.

Those who argue that Sec. 5 is no longer relevant were not paying attention during our past election when the provision helped stave off voter suppression in covered states. Also, in the lead up to the VRA’s renewal, Congress amassed a huge amount of evidence (over 15,000 pages worth), including efforts to keep minorities from the polls, to illustrate why Sec. 5 must stay intact.

Thankfully the administration disagrees as Attorney General Eric Holder gave a full-throated defense of Sec. 5 earlier this month. Speaking at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Holder said,

The nation has come too far and its people — from all races, religions, creeds, sexual orientations, backgrounds, and walks of life – have sacrificed too much not to finish the task of ensuring equal voting rights of all Americans. That is why so many agree — as illustrated over the past few years — that Section 5 remains essential to safeguarding the voting rights of millions across the country.

Gutting the most important provision of this landmark law is not just unwarranted but harmful to the government’s ability to eradicate voter suppression. Sec. 5 of the VRA is both constitutional and absolutely necessary. The right for every citizen’s vote to be counted, as LBJ spoke so passionately about so many years ago, still rings true today.

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