Congress has historic obligation to protect voting rights

I may know the history of the Voting Rights Act as well as anyone, having personally worked to reauthorize this landmark law in 1982 and 2006. Each time, we had a unique opportunity to both celebrate progress and adapt to new threats to the right to vote, the cornerstone of our democracy. We have undertaken this task together as a country – Democrat and Republican – since the VRA was first enacted in 1965.

Yet I’ve never been as anxious as I am now that we won’t come together and do the right thing. We have a vital opportunity to create a modern, effective Voting Rights Act for the 21st century. But unless we overcome partisan inertia, we will leave voters more vulnerable to discrimination than at any time in the past half century.

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The Voting Rights Act has been one of the most effective civil rights laws in our nation’s history. It includes several provisions intended to prevent voting discrimination, but few have been as important as a process known as “preclearance,” which requires covered jurisdictions to provide notice and review of any proposed voting change in certain places with a history of discrimination. Because the right to vote in a given election, once lost, can never be regained, preclearance has prevented discrimination from taking place.

Last year in the Shelby County v. Holder decision, the Supreme Court invalidated the mechanism used to decide which towns, counties, and states would be subject to the preclearance remedy, effectively eliminating the preclearance approach itself.  Although the Court upheld the constitutional validity of the preclearance process, it argued that the formula was outdated, but did open up the space in the decision for Congress to take action to make relevant updates.

Not only did this decision remove one of the most powerful and effective tools for combating discrimination, it also deprived us of key information about when and where communities are considering changes in how they administer elections, by taking away the requirement that covered jurisdictions provide notice of any proposed voting changes.

While there is no question that we have taken critical steps forward as a country since the dark days before the Voting Rights Act, it is equally evident that voting discrimination is not an artifact of the past. Since the Shelby decision, we have already seen communities propose changes that disadvantage voters of color, such as moving to at-large voting districts and removing polling places from areas with large communities of color.

Now we stand at a crucial crossroads. Just as in the decades past, this Congress can stop current threats to voting rights by adopting a 21st century Voting Rights Act—one that will ensure the right to vote is protected for all Americans.

The good news is that a bipartisan bill has been introduced to do just that. The Voting Rights Amendment Act, with sponsors as diverse as Republicans Jim Sensenbrenner (Wis.) and Steve Chabot (Ohio) and Democrats John Lewis (Ga.) and Mike Honda (Calif.), provides a modern approach to the Voting Rights Act through several key features.

First, the bill would institute a new, modern preclearance approach. Instead of applying only to a defined set of states or counties, this new approach would apply the review process to any place in the nation with a documented history of discrimination in the past 15 years. The list of communities subject to this review would be updated annually. Demonstrably protecting the right to vote for all would allow a community to leave the list, while emerging future discrimination – anywhere – could result in the temporary use of preclearance.

Second, the bill would make voting more transparent and accountable by requiring that certain changes to elections – as well as any last-minute changes – occurring anywhere in the country be publicly announced. This is simply common sense. Towns and counties have every right to consider changes to how they administer elections, but we as citizens have a corresponding right to know what is being considered.

This is not a perfect bill, but it is an honest compromise between Democrats and Republicans working together to provide modern and effective protections to all voters. It may be uncommon these days, but this is what Congress is supposed to do.

Voting is the language of our democracy, and we cannot allow some voices to be silenced by discrimination. The need is real, a solution has been proposed, and there is a simple path forward. The question is whether Congress is willing to meet this obligation and do the right thing.

Henderson is the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national civil and human rights organizations.