By Devon Westray
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It’s no surprise to educators that attacks on voting rights have escalated along with the assault on public education.
Yet many were still shocked by the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down key components of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, whose provisions were remarkably successful in protecting the voting rights of individuals most vulnerable to voter discrimination: communities of color, the elderly, the poor, and those with limited English skills.
Now, a group of Democratic lawmakers has introduced the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 (S. 1659/H.R. 2867) in both chambers of Congress, with the express purpose of restoring protections for those voters.
“Educators and all voters need to know there is a plan out there to destroy public education, and one step in that plan is to make it very hard for certain people to vote,” said North Carolina educator Ernest D. “Jameel” Williams. “If we want good schools, we have to work to make all voices heard in the electoral process.”
Williams, an elementary school paraeducator and bus driver, has participated in voter education campaigns to help members of his community understand their rights and prepare for elections.
“There are a lot of powerful people getting people into office that are suitable for them–the wealthy–but not concerned with the poor and the middle class. We need to be on top of our game when it comes to voter suppression or we will not be represented at all,” said Williams.
Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 defined which states and localities with a history of chronic voter discrimination and voter suppression required preclearance oversight from the federal government prior to changing their voting policies. The mere existence of Section 4 frequently served as a deterrent to states attempting to enact unjust voting laws.
On June 25th, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Shelby v. Holder that the formula used by the federal government to determine which jurisdictions are subject to Section 4 violated the Constitution, which left it up to Congress to come up with a more updated formula.
Until Congress acts, there is effectively no preclearance requirement in place.
Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia—states once covered entirely or partially by the preclearance requirement—have all passed restrictive voter ID laws in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.
Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, wrote earlier this month that right-wing state legislatures seized the moment to implement some of the most blatant voter suppression tactics since the days of poll taxes and literacy tests, by severely restricting accepted forms of ID; cutting early voting periods; and purging targeted voters from the voting rolls.
Now, some in Congress are working to repair the damage.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 (VRAA) requires preclearance using a new geographic formula based on current conditions for those states with a pattern of discrimination that puts voters at risk. It requires sufficient notice and transparency to ensure that last-minute voting changes won’t adversely affect voters.
The VRAA is co-sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Chris Coons (D-DE). House sponsors Reps. John Lewis (D-GA), Terri Sewell (D-AL), Linda Sánchez (D-CA), and Judy Chu (D-CA), represent the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
Rep. Lewis—who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama, and worked with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to pass the original Voting Rights Act—has spoken passionately about the need to protect voting rights today. A co-sponsor of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, Lewis stated: “I support this legislation and hope that this Congress will do what is right by the people of this nation and pass the voting rights legislation that restores justice, dignity, and equal access to the ballot box in America.”
Educators like Sonia Smith of Virginia—one of the 16 states subject to the pre-approval clause before the Supreme Court’s ruling—have no doubt that the nation is still struggling to achieve equity when it comes to voting rights.
It’s a topic that she says is part of her DNA. “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,” Smith told EducationVotes.
“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 said with pride.
“Protecting voting rights protects public education, but it’s also about our rights and our purpose as Americans.”