Skip to main content

Don't gut the Voting Rights Act

By Penda D. Hair and Benjamin Todd Jealous, Special to CNN
February 26, 2013 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
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
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT