The VRA and the anniversary of 'Bloody Sunday'

We recently marked the 49th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.”

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, more than 600 civil rights demonstrators, including our beloved colleague, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), were brutally attacked by state and local police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge as they marched from Selma to Montgomery in support of the right to vote.

“Bloody Sunday” was a watershed moment in the history of our country and crystallized for the nation the necessity of enacting a strong and effective federal law protecting the right to vote of every American.

Nearly 50 years later, the Voting Rights Act is still needed.

In signing the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965, President Johnson said:

"The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men."

In answering the call of history and justice, great legislator-statesmen worked across the aisle and with President Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, men like Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.).

In announcing his support for the 1982 extension of the Voting Rights Act, President Reagan said, “the right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties.”

Section 5 is the “crown jewel” of the Voting Rights Act. It requires covered jurisdictions to submit proposed changes to any voting law or procedure to the Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C for pre-approval, hence the term “pre-clearance.”

But a serious blow was dealt to the Voting Rights Act on June 25, 2013, when the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 193 (2013), which invalidated Section 4(b), the provision of the law determining which jurisdictions would be subject to Section 5 “pre-clearance.”

According to the Supreme Court majority, the reason for striking down Section 4(b) was that ‘times have changed.”

That may be true but the Voting Rights Act is still needed.

In the same way that the vaccine invented by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1953 eradicated the crippling effects but did not eliminate the cause of polio, the Voting Rights Act succeeded in stymying the practices that resulted in the wholesale disenfranchisement of African Americans and language minorities. But it did not eliminate them entirely.

True, the Supreme Court did not invalidate the preclearance provisions of Section 5; it only invalidated Section 4(b). But that is like leaving the car undamaged but destroying the key that unlocks the doors and starts the engine.

There were many commentators, pundits, and opponents of the Voting Rights Act who viewed the Court’s Shelby decision as the death knell of the Act.

But they underestimated the resolve of men and women of goodwill in the House and Senate on both sides of the aisle and across the country who revere the Voting Rights Act. They discounted the commitment of persons like:

  • Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner (Wis.) and Democrat Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), each a former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee;
  • Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who shed his blood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on “Bloody Sunday”;
  • Southern members like Reps. Spencer Bacchus (R-Ala.), Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) and myself.

These members, joined by several of their colleagues, refused to let the Voting Rights Act die. After months of hard work, consultation, negotiation, and collaboration, our working group, led by Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), was able to produce a bill, H.R. 3899, “Voting Rights Amendments Act of 2014,” that repairs the harm done to the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court decision and is capable of winning majorities in the House and Senate and the signature of the president.

This legislation is not perfect, no bill ever is. But the legislation represents an important step forward because it is responsive to the Court’s concern that the previous formula was outdated and establishes a new coverage formula that is carefully tailored to protect the voting rights of all Americans.

H.R. 3899 replaces the old “static” coverage formula with a new dynamic coverage formula, or “rolling trigger,” which works as follows: 

  • for states, it requires at least one finding of discrimination at the state level and at least four adverse findings by its sub-jurisdictions within the previous 15 years;
  • for political subdivisions, it requires at least three adverse findings within the previous 15 years; but  
  • political subdivisions with “persistent and extremely low minority voter turnout” can also be covered if they have a single adverse finding of discrimination.

The rolling trigger, however, does not cover all of these states so to compensate, the bill also includes several key provisions that are consistent with the needs created by a narrower Section 5 trigger.

For example, the bill requires nationwide transparency of “late breaking” voting changes; allocation of poll place resources; and changes within the boundaries of voting districts; and clarifies and expands the ability of plaintiffs to seek a preliminary injunction against voting discrimination.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act is no ordinary piece of legislation. For millions of Americans, and for many in Congress, the it is sacred treasure, earned by the sweat and toil and tears and blood of ordinary Americans who showed the world it was possible to accomplish extraordinary things. And it is needed as much today to prevent another epidemic of voting disenfranchisement as Dr. Salk’s vaccine is still needed to prevent another polio epidemic.

Jackson Lee has represented Texas's 18th Congressional District since 1995. She serves on the Homeland Security and the Judiciary committees.