By Amanda Litvinov
After witnessing the coordinated attacks on voting rights that plagued the 2012 election, it’s hard to believe there could be a serious challenge to one of the central tenants of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), widely hailed as one of the great civil rights triumphs of the 20th century.
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A throng of new laws driven by conservative state legislators between 2010 and 2012 added significant barriers for certain groups of people to vote—namely college students, older Americans, the poor, and people of color. Tactics ranged from restrictive voter I.D. laws (some thrown on the books shortly before the election), threatening billboards placed in minority communities and the elimination of same-day registration and early voting opportunities.
Yet the fate of the VRA itself seemed in question today as the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that seeks to overturn the pre-clearance provision that requires states and localities with a history of racial, ethnic or language discrimination at the polls to get the green light from the Department of Justice before making any changes to voting procedures.
Educators like Sonia Smith of Virginia have no doubt that although many discriminatory practices were stopped by the passage of the VRA nearly 50 years ago, there remains a great need to defend voting rights from today’s more subversive forms of voter suppression.
Smith says she was born into the role of voting rights advocate.
“My great-grandmother, who stood all of 4’8”, helped black folks register to vote back in the late nineteen-teens and twenties when it was very dangerous,” said Smith during a break from a two-day voter activist training hosted by NEA and the NAACP in Washington, D.C., this summer.
“She helped people of color pass the literacy test they had to take before the Voting Rights Act did away with that. She educated people about the poll tax and walked them through the steps that it took to register and often went with people to the registrar.”
Smith worked to help register and educate voters in her home county of Chesterfield and beyond, making sure eligible voters knew their rights in advance of the November elections.
Virginia is one of the nine states affected by the pre-clearance clause of the VRA. It is also one of the states that experienced long lines in November, with voters waiting as long as five hours to cast a ballot.
Dennis Van Roekel, who represents the 3 million educators who make up the National Education Association, addressed such threats to voter rights in a letter to President Obama in advance of the State of the Union Address earlier this month.
“The crisis of opportunity for Americans to participate in our democracy was on full
display during the last election cycle. Reactionary state laws, unequal and unethical
administration of voting procedures, and the unfettered access of corporations to influence
electoral outcomes has severely damaged our democracy,” Van Roekel stated in the letter.
“When our members teach history and civics, we want to be able to confidently impart to students across this country that no matter one’s race, income, or neighborhood, each American voice and vote is equally valued and protected.”
In the address he delivered two days later, President Obama announced a non-partisan commission to strengthen voting rights in America.
“When any Americans – no matter where they live or what their party – are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals,” he said.