This week Americans celebrate the 49th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), sweeping legislation that helped guarantee equal access to the ballot box. One of the major triumphs of the civil rights movement, over the years the VRA has been instrumental in combating discriminatory voting practices and protecting our most fundamental right as citizens: the right to vote.
Unfortunately, thanks to the Supreme Court, this week we're not just celebrating the anniversary of the VRA -- we're fighting to rebuild it.
A ruling handed down by the Court's conservative majority last summer in Shelby County v. Holder gutted a major provision of the VRA and put access to the voting booth in real danger for many Americans. In a powerful dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that getting rid of central and effective VRA protections is "like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet."
Unfortunately, we still need that umbrella. In June the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights released a report on The Persistent Challenge of Voting Discrimination, which documents nearly 150 separate instances of voting discrimination in 30 states, with each incident impacting hundreds to tens of thousands of voters. For example, in 2009, the state of Georgia proposed to establish a voter verification program, including changes to the voter registration form. But the new verifying procedures didn't provide accurate information, and thousands of people who would otherwise be eligible to vote were flagged -- including a disproportionate number of people of color -- and faced "additional and erroneous burdens on the right to register to vote."
It's clear that the most fundamental right in our democracy has been imperiled, and we need to remedy the damage done by the Shelby decision. Congress needs to move forward on legislation to update and modernize the VRA. The Voting Rights Amendment Act (VRAA) had a Senate hearing in June but is stalled in the GOP-controlled House.
While we have taken great strides in the nearly 50 years since the VRA was signed into law, there remains much work to do. As citizens and voters, we have to make clear to our elected representatives that complacency on this critical issue will not be tolerated.