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We Still Need the Voting Rights Act

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One Year After the Supreme Court's Shelby decision, Congress Must Act to Modernize VRA

Anniversaries are normally a cause for celebration. But there is no joy in Latino communities across the country over this week's one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court Case case known as Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. One year ago this week, the Shelby decision, delivered by a narrow Supreme Court majority, dealt a severe blow to one of the most powerful civil rights enforcement tools ever enacted -- the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Since Shelby County, jurisdictions in at least seven states attempted to (or succeeded in) passing discriminatory voting policies. The goal behind these policies seems obvious: disadvantage minority voters, and particularly the Latino community, in the political process.

To help restore much-needed voting rights protections, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, our coalition of 37 preeminent national Latino organizations, recently gathered on the steps of the Supreme Court to announce the formal launch of the "Latinos United for Voting Rights" campaign. In conjunction with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) , we released a report, "Latinos and the VRA: A Modern Fix for Modern-Day Discrimination," describing the egregious and far-reaching discrimination faced by Latino voters in past election cycles and since the Shelby decision. The report underscores the need for Congress to move legislatively on updating the VRA. It should remove any doubt that discrimination still exists and shows that the nation's fastest growing voter segment needs a reinvigorated Voting Rights Act.

As the report notes, almost 7 million Latino eligible voters live in jurisdictions that were previously subject to the preclearance requirement but are now without these protections. This includes 5.7 million eligible Latino voters residing in the covered states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, and 1.2 million Latino voters in covered localities within California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota.

Preclearance, the administrative procedure required by section 5 of the VRA, was really the "teeth" behind the VRA. It was a mechanism designed to secure swift and cost-effective reviews of electoral changes that could discriminate against minority communities. Any changes to voting procedures in states and local jurisdictions covered under the Act were required to be cleared and pre-approved by the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before implementation.

These reviews served to help ensure that changes in voting practices wouldn't diminish the ability of U.S. citizens to vote, particularly U.S. citizens of from minority communities that were previously subject to discrimination. After last summer's Shelby decision, we lost this important part of the law, as the responsibility was placed on Congress to determine a new formula for preclearance.

The Voting Rights Act is a monumental piece of legislation that many civil rights heroes in our country fought to pass. Leaders like Congressman John Lewis literally bled for this bill to pass, through non-violent demonstrations that often turned deadly for the peaceful participants. Congressman Lewis and other giants sought fundamental protections to vote, especially for those who had been denied this right for decades. We should continue to uphold their legacy. Today as we continue to face challenges to voting like those documented in our report, we need Congress to act to reinstate preclearance with an appropriate formula. With the dismantling of this key provision, there is a dangerous void in current protections and voters everywhere are vulnerable to discrimination.

Fortunately, Congress has the opportunity to right the Court's decision through the enactment of federal legislation that would restore the longstanding and overwhelming bipartisan consensus in support of this critical protection. In January this year, U.S. Representatives James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and John Conyers (D-MI), introduced H.R. 3899, The Voting Rights Amendment Act (VRAA), which currently has a bipartisan list of 25 additional cosponsors. NHLA is pleased to see that the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing this week on the Senate companion bill and we urge House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) to advance this bill through the congressional process as well, beginning with a hearing and markup in the House Judiciary Committee.

In letters sent to the Senate and House Judiciary Committees this week, we shared our "Latinos and the VRA" report. I hope our documentation helps Chairman Goodlatte and his colleagues understand that discrimination in voting still exists -- and that they cannot let the VRA die out on their watch, especially when the VRA has always had bipartisan support through each and every reauthorization. The VRA is still needed today to protect vulnerable communities.

This week's Senate hearing is a critical step in ensuring that all of America, including Latino voters, are able to enjoy the constitutional right to vote -- now and in the years to come. I urge Chairman Goodlatte and the House Judiciary Committee to act promptly on fixing the VRA in their chamber of Congress as well so that we can uphold the value of every citizen's right to participate in the electoral process, no matter his or her race, socio-economic status, or language spoken at home.