Skip to main content

Don't gut the Voting Rights Act

By Penda D. Hair and Benjamin Todd Jealous, Special to CNN
updated 7:12 AM EST, Tue February 26, 2013
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will review the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will review the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will review the Voting Rights Act of 1965
  • Penda Hair, Benjamin Jealous: Losing Section 5 of the Act would harm our democracy
  • Leading up to the 2012 elections, we saw great efforts to pass restrictive voting laws, they say
  • Hair, Jealous: Without Section 5 of the Act, unfair voting policies would go unchecked

Editor's note: Penda D. Hair is co-director of Advancement Project, a next generation civil rights organization that focuses on issues of democracy and race. Benjamin Todd Jealous is president and CEO of the NAACP.

(CNN) -- On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will review the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark legislation that cleared barriers to the ballot box for all American citizens.

In Shelby County v. Holder, the Court will hear arguments on Section 5 -- the heart of the Voting Rights Act -- that allows the federal government to block state election practices that are discriminatory. A predominantly white county in Alabama, Shelby County, charges that the decision of Congress in 2006 to reauthorize Section 5 is unconstitutional.

The case comes on the heels of a federal election last fall in which our nation witnessed the greatest assault on voting rights in more than a half century. Drastic cuts to early voting hours, restrictive photo ID laws, tens of thousands of registered voters being dropped from poll books due to illegitimate purges were only a few of the tactics used to keep people from voting.

Penda D. Hair
Penda D. Hair
Benjamin Todd Jealous
Benjamin Todd Jealous

Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old Miami resident who was invited to join first lady Michelle Obama at the recent State of the Union address, stood in line for more than three hours to cast a ballot. Sadly, thousands of voters had to endure waiting times up to eight hours, prompting President Barack Obama to call for the nation to "fix it."

New laws and policies are being considered on the state and federal level now that will make it harder to vote -- particularly for the elderly, the young and people of color. Without the protections afforded by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, many Americans would find voting even more difficult.

Election Day is the one day where we are all equal. Black, brown or white, rich or poor, we all have an equal say in the ballot box. Voting is the most fundamental pillar of a democracy and it is imperative that we keep elections free, fair and accessible to all.

Opinion: Voting Rights Act and the South on trial

As this important debate begins anew, here are five key misconceptions you need to know about the Voting Rights Act and why it remains as relevant today as the day it was originally signed.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Section 5 unfairly punishes the South for its past

This provision of the Voting Rights Act requires jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices to get federal "pre-clearance" (essentially, permission from the Department of Justice) before changing any voting procedure. This applies to not just Southern states, but also to other states such as Alaska, Arizona, along with certain counties in New York, Michigan, South Dakota, New Hampshire and California.

Once a state has demonstrated that it can fairly run elections for a period of 10 years, it can be exempted from Section 5. In fact, every jurisdiction that has sought this "bailout" since 1982 has been approved. The jurisdictions that remain covered by Section 5 have not applied for bailouts. They are not being punished for their past, but held accountable for their present practices.

The formula is outdated

Section 5 is not static, and dozens of jurisdictions have been added under the provision since it was first passed. In fact, Section 5 was reconsidered and reauthorized by Congress in 1970, 1975, 1982 and 2006 based on extensive evidence of continuing discrimination.

The NAACP, Advancement Project and other civil rights advocates have long pushed for expanding Section 5's "pre-clearance" to include more states with voting problems, such as Ohio and Colorado, and more counties with records of egregious discrimination in voting. Doing so, however, takes Congressional action. So far, Washington's lawmakers have not demonstrated the political will. We should not revoke critical protections for fair voting simply because Congress has failed to act on expanding them.

Section 5 is no longer applicable

The Voting Rights Act was passed not only for the most extreme acts of intimidation, but also for the small changes, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, that made voting harder for people of color and poor whites. The last few years leading up to the 2012 elections saw the greatest efforts to pass restrictive voting laws since the post-Reconstruction era, including limiting the type of ID that people can use, and requiring additional proof of citizenship to register and vote, all of which disproportionately impact people of color and the working poor. These adjustments unfairly shift the goal line and demonstrate why Section 5 is still needed.

Section 2 is sufficient to ensuring fair voting procedures

While Section 2 of the law bans voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity, it is enforced only through lawsuits. When lawsuits are filed, the burden of proof rests with the challenger (not the local or state government that has changed voting rules).

In contrast, Section 5 ensures that discrimination can't take hold by blocking problematic policies from going into effect in the first place. Without these precautions, unfair voting policies would go unchecked, leaving disenfranchised voters to face harm later.

The country reelected an African-American president, with a large share of support from black and Latino voters, so we no longer need their votes to be protected by Section 5

Section 5 made a difference in the 2012 elections. It blocked restrictive photo ID laws in Texas and South Carolina, and was used to reject a Texas redistricting plan that would undercut Latino voting power. And as the U.S. Department of Justice reviews Mississippi's photo ID law, that measure is on hold.

It is against this backdrop that the Supreme Court will hear the challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Losing this provision would signal a green light for even more partisan legislatures to manipulate election laws for political gains.

At a time when voting rights are increasingly under attack, we should be expanding federal oversight of voting laws -- not scrapping the most effective civil rights legislation ever enacted.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Penda D. Hair and Benjamin Todd Jealous.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:25 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT