Last year, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act (VRA) with its decision in Shelby County v. Holder. This decision invalidated key sections of the Act that protected voters from discrimination. One component of the law that the Court did away with was preclearance: this allowed government oversight of proposed districting changes within jurisdictions with a troubling history of passing discriminatory voting laws.
Yesterday, on the one year anniversary of the decision in Shelby County, the Senate held a hearing on the Voting Rights Act Amendment (VRAA). This proposed legislation would update the law in response to Shelby County v. Holder, and would renew protections for minority voters in a way important for women.
Laws that restrict voting rights disproportionately affect women for a few reasons: first, women are disproportionately poor and may lack the resources to travel long distances to vote or to obtain identification. A report issued by the Brennan Center for Justice reports that 1 million voters who fall below the poverty line live more than 10 miles away from the closest identification-issuing office. Other factors, including name-changes during marriage or divorce, and the fact that women make up the majority of groups who are disproportionately burdened by voting restrictions, like students and the elderly, also contribute to the impact of onerous voter I.D. requirements and other provisions that make it more difficult to vote.
At yesterday’s hearing, Texas State Senator Sylvia Garcia offered several examples of discriminatory voting laws that have passed in Texas in the past year, including redistricting, restricting access to the ballot box, and changing the number of representatives in districts with large Hispanic populations. Dr. Abigail Thernstrom said that proponents of the VRAA simplistically assume that low minority turnout is always the fault of the district, while social factors such as education, age, and newcomer status in a community all explain instances of low minority turnout. But Garcia’s evidence [PDF], including a Texas mayor’s comment that the Justice Department “can’t tell us what to do, anymore,” pointed in another, more sinister, direction.
Even before Shelby County, Texas had a troubling record on voting rights, with more violations of the VRA’s preclearance provisions than any other state: in other words, courts were striking down proposed voting changes in Texas because they were found to be motivated by a discriminatory purpose. Garcia testified [PDF] about the importance of amending the VRA: “For the sake of integrity in our elections and our democracy, Texas urgently needs a modernized fully functioning Voting Rights Act.” Dr. Francys Johnson explained [PDF] how voting discrimination is alive and well in our country, and that for minorities, the VRA is a history of “promises made, promises broken.” And Sherilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, emphasized the importance of voters having the ability to stop voting discrimination before it happens. Without a preclearance requirement, voters lose key opportunities to put candidates in office.
Throughout the hearing, Senators and witnesses alike underscored that the original Voting Rights Act was a bipartisan effort aimed at protecting the right to vote. Although no Republican Senators have signed onto the Act, yet, Senator Leahy offered his hope that both parties would work together to renew the strength of the VRA.
After the hearing, members of congress, civil rights leaders, and voters joined together on the Capitol grounds to rally for the VRAA and call representatives to action. Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared that voting rights in the United States should be “as strong as our democracy.”