50 years later the struggle for the right to vote continues
In 2006, the Democrats were the minority party in Congress and there was a Republican in the White House. Provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were set to expire in 2007, particularly the part of the law requiring states with a history of discrimination to clear changes to their voting laws with the federal government, known as “preclearance.”
In an inspiring bipartisan and bicameral effort, Congress passed the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Reauthorization and Amendments Act, which I was proud to co-sponsor, renewing the Voting Rights Act.
The House overwhelmingly supported the renewal with a vote of 390-33. The Senate followed with a unanimous 98-0 vote.
President Bush signed the bill on July 27, 2006. It was an incredible display by both parties that protecting the right to vote for all Americans was a top priority for Congress.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, probably one of the most important bills in the history of America, I wish we had more to celebrate.
Seven years after that bipartisan act to continue voter protections under the VRA, the Supreme Court struck down the preclearance provision.
The preclearance provision is one of the most critical elements of the law.
It ensures that we never go back to the days when nonwhite voters were required to pay a poll tax, take a literacy or moral character test, or have to recite the U.S. Constitution in order to be allowed to vote.
Since the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, a number of states have already passed laws that will make it more difficult to vote.
These laws include rolling back early voting and limiting options of where and when individuals can register to vote. Voter ID laws are being passed in a number of states across the nation, which will disproportionately impact minority, senior, and young voters.
All of these changes in law, especially voter ID laws, are in the name of preventing voter fraud. Voter ID laws are a solution in search of a problem.
A recent analysis of elections between 2000 and 2014 found just 31 incidents of voter impersonation in over 1 billion votes cast.
Fortunately, this is not the case in all states. California and Oregon, for example, have been proactive in improving access to the ballot.
On the other end of the spectrum, states with a history of not protecting voting rights are getting worse.
Congress can reverse this disturbing trend to roll back voter protections. Legislation has been introduced to not only restore the preclearance provision of the VRA but would also enhance protections for voters.
The Voter Empowerment Act would ensure online voter registration – San Diego County recently allowed online registration with successful results.
It would allow same-day registration, encourage young people to vote with access to voter registration at universities, and it would ensure military and overseas Americans’ ballots are counted.
The VEA also includes language from a bill that I have introduced, the Universal Vote by Mail Act, to allow voters no excuse absentee voting. Currently, 21 states restrict eligible voters’ ability to vote absentee.
Many of these restrictions are an invasive violation of privacy. To vote absentee, some states require a doctor’s note, the details of a religious obligation, latest pregnancy status or details of a vacation destination.
Attending to a sick loved one can sometimes be considered a valid reason as long you provide the name of the person in need and the nature of their illness.
In a sign that the bipartisan days of nearly a decade ago are long past, today’s Republican Congressional Leaders won’t even allow a vote on the VEA. As my friend and colleague Rep. John Lewis of Georgia has said, “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool in a democracy.” No one in Congress knows better about the struggle to make the Voting Rights Act a reality.
He was one of 600 civil rights activists beaten during a voting rights march on Selma that led to the passage of the VRA.
Let’s honor the sacrifices of those who fought to make our democracy stronger by passing the Voter Empowerment Act and sending it to the desk of President Barack Obama.
Many democracies around the world look to us on how a strong and open democracy can flourish.
We must continue to lead by that example and put in place protections to secure the most sacred right of a democracy – the right to vote.
This editorial first appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune