Despite court ruling, voter suppression is rampant

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to protect our right to vote.

It required states with a history of voter suppression to get federal approval before changing voting laws.  And for nearly five decades, the states had to show why a change was necessary and demonstrate how that change wouldn’t harm voters.

But the Supreme Court - by a 5-4 vote - gutted the law, saying a part of it was outdated.  Our land’s highest court rendered the law void until Congress comes up with new criteria for determining which states and localities have to get advance approval.

Specifically, the Court’s majority said we’ve changed a lot since the 1960s, that we no longer have blatant voter suppression, like, poll taxes and literacy tests – tactics once used to disenfranchise an untold numbers of voters across the country.

Unfortunately, voter suppression is alive and well.  Though it may not be as blatant, it happens.

Leading up to our 2012 elections, 15 states passed restrictive voting laws and executive actions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.  And these states accounted for 203 electoral votes, or 75 percent of the total needed to win the presidency.

One of them was my own state of Florida, where the Legislature passed and governor signed a law that caused the League of Women Voters, after 73 years, to drop its voter registration drives.  The law also cut Florida’s early voting days from 14 to eight.

It was the Voting Rights Act that did allow the federal government to go before a panel of Washington, D.C. judges who found that Florida’s reduction of early voting "would make it materially more difficult for some minority voters to cast a ballot."  Florida had to restore 96 hours of early voting.

But Election Day still saw a fiasco.  Lines were long and people waited for hours to cast their vote in some places.  Faced with calls for extending hours, Republican Gov. Rick Scott failed to do what two GOP predecessors did: extend voting hours in some of the most swamped polling places to give folks enough time to vote.

Not only does the High Court’s decision remove much needed voter protections, it prevents the federal government from trying to block discriminatory state laws before they go into effect.  States and local jurisdictions are now free to do as they please.

In fact, moments after the decision Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said his state will begin “immediately” honoring local legislation that a federal court has said imposes “strict, unforgiving burdens" on many Texans wanting to cast a ballot.

The right to vote has not always been given to all Americans.  Black men didn’t have the right to vote until after the Civil War.  Women didn’t win the right until the 1920s.  And minorities such as Latinos didn’t get voter protections until the mid-1970s.

It’s this history of expanding fundamental rights the Supreme Court’s decision ignores.  And I am deeply disappointed by the decision.

But I remain committed now more than ever to working with a deeply divided Senate to move toward a common vision – of protecting and preserving the democratic ideal of one person, one vote.

Nelson is the senior senator from Florida, serving since 2001. He is chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, and a member of the Budget, Commerce, Armed Services and Finance committees.

More in Judicial

DOJ v. Deutsche Bank: Out-of-court settlements gain international prominence

Read more »