Next week marks the 48th anniversary of the passage of one of the nation's most historically effective civil rights statutes, the monumental Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). Prompted by the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act ensures that every American citizen, regardless of race or language, has equal access to the vote. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the legislation into law on August 6, 1965, he called the day ''a triumph for freedom." ''This law covers many pages,'' he said, ''but the heart of the act is plain: Wherever, by clear and objective standards, states and counties are using regulations... to deny the right to vote, then they will be struck down."
And for nearly half a century, the Voting Rights Act has done just that, striking down attempts at voter suppression and helping to ensure that our voting system is fair, free and accessible. Over the past four decades, the VRA has helped the U.S. Department of Justice block hundreds of racially discriminatory voting measures in communities across the country. But in June, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the VRA, weakening our right to vote -- what President Ronald Reagan called the "crown jewel of our liberties" when advocating for the reauthorization of the VRA in 1982 -- and putting the nation's democratic system at great risk.
The Supreme Court's decision dismantled Section 4 of the VRA, a key component of the legislation. Immediately, the floodgates were open for attacks on voting rights. Before the ink was even dry on the Court's decision, several states rushed to implement laws that had previously been blocked under the VRA. Meanwhile North Carolina held a last minute legislative session and opened a full frontal attack on voting rights unlike anything the nation has recently seen. These anti-voter laws pose negative effects for all voters -- black and white, young and old, rich and poor alike. Voter suppression measures are currently underway even in states in which the League of Women Voters had previously successfully blocked voter restrictions. And this could be only the beginning.
The good news: Strong action from Congress can repair the Court's mistake. In July, a month after the Court's ruling in Shelby v. Holder, both the Senate and House of Representatives held hearings to discuss solutions and the path forward to protect our democracy. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who led the VRA's reauthorization efforts in 1982 and 2006, reaffirmed his commitment to the Voting Rights Act, calling for free, fair and accessible elections for all Americans. Representative John Lewis (D-GA), who worked beside Dr. Martin Luther King in the fight for the passage of the VRA and later with Representative Sensenbrenner on its reauthorization in 2006, expressed the legislation's continued vital importance to our democracy.
We join them in calling on Congress to protect our democracy and restore the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act.
With a wide range of lawmakers and advocates developing concrete policy proposals, the congressional hearings were an important first step at this point. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers agree that we must create solutions to protect voters and prevent voter discrimination - and that they recognize that the Voting Rights Act is one of the most effective tools to do so. In another promising move, the U.S. Justice Department in July vowed to use the remaining tools under the VRA to prevent discrimination in voting. "We cannot allow the slow unraveling of the progress that so many, throughout history, have sacrificed so much to achieve," said Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
Attorney General Holder is right that the stakes are high: Until Congress repairs the Voting Rights Act, voters will likely face a variety of voting suppression attacks within their state, local and county jurisdictions as new election laws are passed. And while advocates like the League of Women Voters will continue to pursue all avenues to protect the rights of voters, strong congressional action on the VRA is truly needed to restore our ability to effectively challenge discrimination in elections before it goes into effect.
As states and municipalities continue to move forward with discriminatory voting measures, Congress must act swiftly to protect voters. On the 48th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, we ask you to join us in calling on Congress to protect our democracy and restore and repair the VRA to its full strength. It is time to close the floodgates on voter suppression efforts.
Today's methods of voter discrimination look very different than 48 years ago, with restrictions on early voting and discriminatory redistricting plans replacing poll taxes and literacy tests. But their intentions -- leaving specific groups of Americans out of the voting process--remain the same. We must restore and repair the Voting Rights Act's voting protections and equip our democracy to respond to present-day challenges.
Now is the time to contact your members of Congress and tell them to repair the VRA before any more damage is done. As we celebrate the legislation's anniversary, we remain hopeful that Congress will come together to protect our democracy, ensure the right to vote and decisively close the door to voter discrimination by restoring the power of the Voting Rights Act.
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