WASHINGTON – A bill introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., would ensure that voting rights are protected in the 2016 presidential election. The bill, the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA), is co-sponsored by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus and Asian Pacific American Caucus.
Because of a Supreme Court decision, the 2016 presidential election will be the first in 50 years in which voters will not have the full protections of the Voting Right Act of 1965. Many voters will be burdened by identification requirements and other measures proven to suppress the voting rights of minorities and the poor.
The VRAA would restore rights the Supreme Court took away and strengthen voting rights protections.
Not a single Republican supports it.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, provisions that had required federal approval for any changes made to voting procedures in states and jurisdictions having a “pattern” of suppressing the rights of minority voters.
With Sections 4 and 5 gone, 34 states now have laws requiring voters to show identification at the polls. It has been conclusively shown that a far greater percentage of poor people and minorities do not have the required forms of identification and lack easy access to birth certificates or other documents to obtain them. Courts across the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have struck down challenges to these new laws, and a federal appeals court handed down an ambiguous ruling regarding a voter identification law in Texas.
The ruling on the Texas law left the door wide open for the Texas Legislature to appeal to the Supreme Court or to tweak the law in ways that would make it appear to be less discriminatory.
The VRAA would eliminate such ambiguous stances. It would kick in before -not after – a state enforces a voter identification law or other measures shown to be discriminatory elsewhere. At least 180 days before such measures are imposed, a state or jurisdiction would have to prove to the federal government it is not discriminatory.
Under the VRAA, the U.S. Justice Department would have the power to bring court suits against states or local jurisdictions having laws that disproportionately affect the rights of poor or minority voters. These laws include: cutting back the times for early voting, reducing the number of polling places or the number of sites for voter registration, outlawing the use of Spanish in voting materials and gerrymandering voting districts to water down the impact of poor and minority voters.
The proposed law would give the attorney general the authority to send federal observers to monitor elections anywhere in the nation where the Department of Justice believes there’s a risk of voting discrimination.
The bill covers all voting jurisdictions in the U.S., not just those with prior records of discrimination.
Hopefully, the proposed Voting Rights Advancement Act will serve as a warning that the right to vote in the 2016 elections is being threatened.
New state laws, Leahy said, “Have left voters without the protections they need to exercise their constitutional right to vote. If anybody thinks there’s not racial discrimination in voting today, they’re not really paying attention.”
Photo: Senator Patrick Leahy holds up the book “March” by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and comic artist Nate Powell. | Jacquelyn Martin/AP