The 2014 mid-term elections are coming, with the political season upon us. It is all so familiar—the ads on TV, knocks on the door, and calls during dinner as candidates vie for the hearts, minds, and votes of America’s electorate. Unfortunately, these elections are also gearing up, in ways reminiscent of the past, to be accompanied by high levels of activity to restrict the electorate’s ability to vote. Unless Congress acts very quickly, these elections will be the first in fifty years not protected by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. For the leaders of our nation—those who came to Congress to serve the American people and protect our democracy—the gutting of our Voting Rights Act should be a call to arms.
There is no doubt that we are seeing a more divided electorate and a more divided Congress. But there is one thing that most of us should be able to agree upon: Every eligible American citizen has a right to go to the polls, to cast a vote, and to have that vote counted. This is a fundamental American freedom, a cornerstone of our democracy, and one of our proudest traditions.
In the past two election cycles, we have seen an increase in legislation, policies, and practices designed to strategically and systematically limit Americans’ ability to vote. And a year ago today, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court gutted the core of our Voting Rights Act with a divided and controversial decision. The decision struck down the formula that determined which states and localities, because of a history of voter discrimination, had to obtain federal approval prior to implementing changes in voting laws. Prior to Shelby, on hundreds of occasions, federal review stopped states from rigging voting rules against their own citizens.
The Shelby decision and nullification of federal review marked a devastating and monumental setback for voting rights in America. Within twenty minutes of the Supreme Court’s decision, the attorney general of Texas announced he would implement a restrictive voter ID law that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act had blocked. Other states such as North Carolina and Alabama enacted similarly restrictive laws.
During the 2014 election, new voting restrictions will be in effect for the first time in a major federal election in up to nine states, pending court challenges. As we near the election, this situation may well worsen. Without the protections of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, some officials will do everything in their power to attempt to institute restrictive voting measures. For example, in certain states, Secretaries of State may move polling places without considering the effect upon all communities and without giving sufficient notice to those affected. Whether or not the intent to restrict the vote can be proven before Election Day, these actions, if not challenged, will undermine the values of American democracy.
Fighting voting discrimination is not just about protecting minority rights, but it is about protecting the fundamental rights and values of all Americans. That is why for nearly fifty years, the Voting Rights Act has garnered bipartisan support, and why that support must continue today.
Democrats and Republicans must work together to strengthen the Voting Rights Act now. Today, on the one year anniversary of the Shelby decision, the Senate is holding a hearing on a Voting Rights Amendment Act. It is imperative that the Senate and the House of Representatives move in short order to advance this bill, which was introduced in the House by a bipartisan group of members in January.
As we did 50 years ago with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, America must once again make fundamental decisions about what type of nation we want to be. Policies that restrict voting are not the tools of great leaders, but the tricks of those who view our electoral process as a parlor game. It is time for the great leaders in Congress, both Democrat and Republican, to rise up and end these practices. The price of failure is democracy itself.
Conyers has represented copngressional districts in the Detroit-area of Michigan since 1965. He sits on the Judiciary Committee. Arnwine is president and executive dirtector of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.