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Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson Headshot

The Need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 and Beyond

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During this past election cycle, I traveled with my Congressional Black Caucus colleagues on a "Get Out the Vote" bus tour. It was inspiring to see the dedication and strength of so many Americans. I witnessed people standing in lines for hours on end just to exercise their right to vote. These citizens were not discouraged by the long waits, shortened voting hours, and too few voting machines. While I was heartened to see so many take seriously the right to vote, there is no excuse for citizens having to wait for hours in line. Unfortunately, the instances of curtailing citizens' access to the polling place are the new face of voter intimidation.

This month, The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Shelby County v. Holder, a case that challenges the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 requires jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory practices to secure advance approval from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C. before implementing any changes in voting or election procedures. In this way, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act encourages localities to establish fair voting practices, but demands real proof of progress. The discrimination on the basis of race is a persistent reality throughout many states protected by Section 5. Civil rights leaders and activists have traveled a long and arduous road to guarantee the right to vote for all Americans. A reversal of Section 5 sends a clear message to the American people, that combating and preventing discriminatory practices at the polls is not a priority.

Critics of the Voting Rights Act argue that voting discrimination is an idea of the past, primarily because we elected the first black President of the United States of America. But our history shows us that even after the ratification of the 15th Amendment, civil rights laws were routinely ignored and violated for nearly a century. Significant barriers, like poll taxes, literacy tests, or threats of violence, were used to prevent African American citizens from voting.

After extensive testimony, and a wealth of evidence to substantiate the act's necessity, Congress passed the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act by a vote of 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House. In this past election, more than 41 states had introduced, and in many instances passed, legislation that would make it more difficult for Americans to vote. The limitations came in the form of overly burdensome voter ID requirement and shortened voting hours. With these instances, we can see that the Voting Rights Act is a necessity because it provides a remedy to protect voters, either by addressing actual instances of discrimination or by preventing discrimination from occurring in the first place.

We stand at a new juncture on our journey to protect voting rights. The American people stood up and fought back against voter intimidation, but it is ultimately the duty of Congress and the courts to protect voters. Present-day disenfranchisement may come in different forms than in the past, but that does not dispute the fact that a fundamental piece of our democracy is in jeopardy. Our fight for voting rights must never cease. The Voting Rights Act is just as critical to protecting voters as it was in the past, and it is my duty, and that of my colleagues in public service, to ensure that voters are protected from blatant acts of voter disenfranchisement.