Posted In: Virginia, Voter Protection
by Colleen Flaherty/Photos courtesy of U.S. Embassy the Hague and Trading Cards NPS
Early this year, the Supreme Court voted to cripple the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and struck a blow to maintaining fair and accessible elections. This week, Congress took a first step toward fixing this injustice.
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Rep. James Sensenbrenner – a Republican from Wisconsin who was in Congress when the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was first passed – said Wednesday that Congress must pass an anti-discrimination voting law before the 2014 election to restore federal supervision that was stripped away thanks to the Court’s decision.
“The VRA is one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed and is vital to our commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in our electoral process,” said Sensenbrenner at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing concerning VRA reauthorization.
The Supreme Court’s ruling invalidated a key section of the Voting Rights Act which required certain jurisdictions – those with a history of racial discrimination – to get pre-approval from the U.S. Justice Department on any changes to election systems. Under the law, the federal government had the authority to block changes that would have limited the voting power of minorities and communities of color.
The Court maintained that the formula used to determine which jurisdictions were covered by the VRA was unconstitutional, and that it is now up to Congress to come up with a new formula. Sensenbrenner, while dismayed by the decision, will take up the cause and work to pass a Voting Rights Act for the third time in his Congressional career.
“Fixing the VRA will take time, but I am confident that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle can work together to ensure American’s most sacred right is protected,” said Sensenbrenner. “Voter discrimination still exists, and our progress toward equality should not be mistaken for a final victory.”
Unfortunately, not everyone is as optimistic as Sensenbrenner.
Many states, even before the dismantling of the VRA, have passed legislation that has disenfranchised voters, particularly for poor and minority communities.
Educator Sonia Smith was active in Virginia during the 2012 elections, one of the 16 states affected by the pre-approval clause of the Voting Rights Act. Now the Virginia legislature will have a much easier time passing restrictive voting laws, an issue near and dear to Smith.
“When the decision was shared with the public, I felt my heart get heavy,” said Smith. “After the decision, it is hard as an African-American woman who listened to her grandparents and parents share stories about ‘the struggle’ to continue to have faith in a country that claims that all are created equal.”
Smith comes from a legacy of voting rights activists, including her great-grandmother who helped registered voters in the segregated, Jim Crow South.
I share my great-grandmother’s story with my African-American Literature students at the beginning of every year. I explain to them that she was a woman who only stood at 4’8”. I explain to them that she worked tirelessly in the heart of Dixie, in Richmond, Virginia, registering African-American people to vote when there was still a poll tax and ‘tests’ to prove your worth as a citizen in the late 1920′s and 1930′s before there ever was a civil rights movement.
“My fight has just gotten harder. I am strengthened knowing that the spirit of those that came before me are with me today, leading me to teach my students how to be fair, just and kind to those that may not feel the same way about them.”