02/27/2013 10:31 am ET Updated Apr 29, 2013

Ensuring a #VoteReady America: The Importance of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act

"The right to vote is precious, almost sacred. Too many people in this country had to give their lives to exercise a right already guaranteed them by the Constitution." -- The Honorable John Lewis (D-GA), Member of Congress and Civil Rights Movement Hero

Today is a big day. The Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. I guess I am struggling to understand why. I struggle because I have historical images tattooed in my mind of my elders being beat -- just so they, you, and me can go to the polls and cast our votes for the candidates of our choice. Alas, in 2013, we are still fighting for unfettered access to the polls, equal representation in federal, state, and local offices, and protection of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

As a former Hill staffer and the immediate past Executive Director of the Congressional Black Caucus, I can say without equivocation that many members of Congress (not just the CBC, CHC, and CAPAC -- the Tricaucus) know that the Voting Rights Act and the critical protections offered in Section 5 are not nearly enough. That is why on Jan. 23, 2013, more than 160 House Democrats joined Congressman John Lewis in reintroducing the Voter Empowerment Act (a bill that was introduced, but never considered last Congress). VEA is the most comprehensive proposal to update our nation's voting systems and will restore access, integrity, and accountability to the U.S. election process.

The Congressional Black Caucus Political Education and Leadership Institute hosted events nationwide to educate people about changes in voting laws in their states. Additionally my nonprofit, IMPACT, launched the #VoteReady movement in August 2012 to protect the historical gains made for voting rights and ensure access to the polls in November. Every week, we led "Super Tuesday Twitter Town Halls" in collaboration with civil rights organizations, celebrities, and members of Congress to educate the masses about voting laws and their potential impact on the November election.

Additionally, IMPACT recruited a political research fellow, Dr. Marcus Coleman to study the effects of proposed voter ID legislation in various states. In our report entitled, "African-American Voter Access and Reduced Opportunity for Political Involvement 2012," major findings included:

  • In Florida, African-American voter growth rates rose at almost twice the rate of their white counterparts between the 2000 and the 2004 presidential election, i.e., 34 percent to 19 percent, compared to 2004 to 2008, which was twenty times that of their white counterparts, i.e. 21 percent to 1 percent, respectively.
  • Approximately 367,000 African American voting age citizens will have their opportunity to vote reduced based on Florida's requirement that voters show photo identification or some other form of ID that displays a signature.
  • If Pennsylvania's voter ID law is enacted for future elections, at least 115,000 African-American voting-age citizens will have their opportunity to vote reduced based on the state's voter ID law.
  • Overall, in Pennsylvania and Florida, there are at least 482,000 African-American voting-age citizens who will have their opportunity to vote reduced.

So, I struggle with the validity of the constitutionality challenge of Section 5 when there was a necessary, concerted effort to protect voting rights just last year -- in 2012. I struggle because there is data that clearly demonstrates the need for voting rights protections that extend beyond Section 5 and its "preclearance" provision.

The Constitution is unequivocally clear that Congress has the authority to protect voters and that it is an equal branch of government. In preparation for the re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act of 2006, Congress developed a substantial record from hearings and testimony that established the need for Section 5 and more generally, the Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Act re-authorization of 2006, had overwhelming bipartisan and bicameral support to it was extend the Act for 25 years with an overwhelming 390 to 33 victory in the House and 98 to 0 in the Senate. Section 5 and the Voting Rights Act are cornerstones of our promise to all Americans that our right to vote deserves to and will be protected. This proven remedy continues to protect voters, either by addressing instances of discrimination or by preventing discrimination from happening.

With the support of nearly the full Congress of VRA and Section 5, Attorney General Holder has vigorously enforced the right of equal access to the ballot box. Since 2009, the Department of Justice has closely monitored new state laws that would significantly change how elections are conducted. In 2012 alone, the Justice Department obtained favorable judgments in four cases under Section 5 -- including protecting the rights of minority voters affected by Texas statewide redistricting maps, the Texas and South Carolina voter ID laws and Florida's early voting changes. DOJ's Civil Rights Division can claim these tremendous victories because of the existence of the Section 5 pre-clearance provision.

Section 5 of the VRA prohibits covered jurisdictions from changing their voting laws without first getting pre-clearance from the Department of Justice. The section covers states and counties that have a history of discriminatory voting practices or poor minority voting registration rates. In order to obtain pre-clearance for a change in voting rules, a jurisdiction must show that the new rules will not violate the VRA.

Although many other states in the union tried to play catch-up during the last election cycle through the introduction (and sometimes passage) of voter identification laws and other suppressive measures, there is a continuing disparity between the states covered by Section 5 and the rest of the country when it comes to systematic efforts to deprive citizens of their rights to vote. The proposal of such laws demonstrates that our nation can hardly afford to rid ourselves of much needed Section 5 protections and on the contrary, we should be considering how to expand the section's reach to other parts of the country that have demonstrated a new challenge with discriminatory practices in electoral laws. Voter discrimination on the basis of race is a persistent reality in many areas protected by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Real voters are at risk of losing their fundamental right to vote; unfortunately, this is a reality for jurisdictions not covered by Section 5 as well.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act encourages America to protect its citizens' right to vote by demanding proof of progress. We can neither afford to lose progress nor Section 5. The Supreme Court must uphold Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because Congressman John Lewis and many others nearly lost their lives to ensure our right and ability to vote on March 7, 1965. May this truly be a happy Black History Month because we continue to protect all of America's citizenry: "Let us march on, 'til victory is won," which will not be one minute before we are all #VoteReady.