I recall having to pay a poll tax to vote in Texas. The practice began in 1902. It did not end until 1966. During those sixty-four years, hundreds of thousands of our citizens were denied the right to vote, an opportunity to participate in American democracy. The federal government prohibited the use of a poll tax in national elections in 1964 with the passage of the 24th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Prior to that time nine states, mostly located in the southern United States, had to receive clearance or prior approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before they could institute changes in voting methods or engage in redistricting.
In its ruling, the Court did not alter Section Five. Instead, it ruled that the formula, detailed in Section Four, used to determine which states should be covered by Section Five went beyond constitutional limits and used data that was outdated. The effect of that ruling is to mute Section Five, and allow states to amend voting procedures and practices as they see fit without fear of federal intervention.
Those who advocated for radical changes in the Voting Rights Act said that increasing numbers of racial minorities participated in state and national elections. They even pointed to the election of President Barack Obama as a reason for the elimination of federal oversight and intervention.
The reality is that since 2010, eight southern states passed laws designed to make voting more cumbersome for racial minorities. Various civil rights organizations and entities such as the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have consistently opposed the elimination of federal involvement in local elections.
Recently, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge said that without Section Five of the Voting Rights Act minority voters would suffer.
Efforts to lessen the impact of the minority vote in Texas have been egregious. Last summer, a federal court in Washington stated that a redistricting map enacted by the Republican controlled legislature was “purposefully discriminatory.”
In the spring of 2012, the Texas NAACP and Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives went to federal court to stop the state from requiring a photo ID in state elections. A federal court agreed, finding that the law violated Section Five of the Voting Rights Act.
Bipartisan coalitions of members of both the House and Senate have historically supported the Voting Rights Act and its provisions. In 2006, the Act was renewed for twenty-five years. The vote in the House was 390 to 30, while the vote in the Senate was 98 to zero. President George W. Bush signed the measure.
Simply stated, the Voting Rights Act is the perpetuation of our democracy. We are a great country because all of our citizens have the right to exercise the right to vote without fear of intimidation.
Congress must now come together to do what we all know is the right thing to do. We must once again make the Voting Rights Act a principled piece of legislation that protects all of our citizens, regardless of race, class or religious preference. This is why we are Americans. This is fundamental to our freedom.
Johnson is in her 11th term representing Texas' 30th congressional district in the House of Representatives. She is Ranking Member on the Science, Space and Technology Committee and also sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.