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Carmen Berkley Headshot

Congress, It's Time to End Voting Discrimination

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VOTING
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One year ago, a majority of Supreme Court justices weakened the federal government's ability to prevent voter discrimination. In a sweeping decision, they decimated the Voting Rights Act, which has helped fulfill the ideals of our democracy for nearly 50 years, and added a new stain to the United States' complicated history on the issue of voting rights.

Our country was born out of a desire for political representation. But after the revolution, our nation erected obstacles to prevent many of its people from participating in the democratic process. This complicated legacy lasted for generations. While our leaders heralded American democracy to the world and championed our country as a shining city on the hill, our government erected barriers to prevent its people from accessing the polls.

Some states made it difficult to register to vote. Others reduced access to the ballot, especially in poor neighborhoods, by placing polling stations in difficult-to-reach locations. Shockingly, some Board of Election members even bragged they wanted to prevent people of color from voting.

Now you might think I'm talking about 1894 or 1964. But I'm actually talking about recent history. When the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act last year on June 25, it unleashed a torrent of state and local action to restrict Americans' access to the polls.

Areas with a history of voting discrimination were no longer required to receive federal sign-off before they changed their voting laws. They responded by demonstrating exactly why federal oversight was necessary. Other parts of the country also passed new discriminatory legislation. They reacted to the court decision by concluding federal oversight was off the table.

In North Carolina, voter registration efforts were suddenly curtailed. In Wisconsin, weekend voting opportunities were eliminated. In Mississippi, new voting requirements were created. Never mind that they impose a heavy financial burden on the poor who often cannot afford the costs of a required photo ID.

Even before the Supreme Court's decision, disastrous right-wing politicians were actively restricting the right to vote. Since 2010, seven of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout rate in 2008 have created new restrictions. Nine of the 12 states with the fastest growing Latino populations have also made it harder to vote. These examples demonstrate why the Voting Rights Act is more important than ever.

Since the decision, members of Congress from both political parties have come together to draft new language for the bill. It responds to the Supreme Court's objections by relying on modern examples to protect voters from discrimination. The bill was introduced in January and it has earned support and praise from advocates and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. Frustratingly, nothing has happened since. The bill has languished all year until today when it got its first hearing -- but there still hasn't been a vote.

Previous efforts to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act have been bipartisan and successful. In 2006, the most recent reauthorization passed the House overwhelmingly and the Senate unanimously. So, what's the hold up?

Decades ago, Civil Rights activists and leaders fought hard to pass the Voting Rights Act. People were beaten, attacked and even killed because they believed that every citizen has the right to self-determination.

To mark the one year anniversary of the court decision, Congress should honor their legacy by passing an updated Voting Rights Amendment. Because if a single person is refused their right to vote this year, it is not just an affront to our democracy, it also is a terrible tragedy.