The United States made its founding claim to independence on the idea that those who govern must derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed” — that is, the right to vote. The slogan we learned in school summed up a lot of it: no taxation without representation. But our democracy did not emerge full-blown. It took us a while — a very long while, actually — to get the second part right. And as we approach the 50th anniversary of the passage of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, we are in danger of losing ground.
Back then, only white, property-owning males could vote before restrictions eventually loosened to include those without property. But it took a civil war and the 15th Amendment to the Constitution to establish universal suffrage — still only for men. And even as women launched a movement of their own to win the right to vote, the promise of suffrage for former slaves was viciously betrayed. For decades across the South, Klansmen and night riders, and county court clerks, governors and other officials conspired to keep former slaves from voting through terror, reprisal or obfuscation.
When the postwar civil rights movement pushed for the right to vote in the South, the nation finally acted to erase this stain on our body politic. In 1965, after church bombings and racially inspired murders, the Voting Rights Act was passed. Tens and hundreds of thousands of those descended from slaves were registered to vote by federal registrars. And in 1968, nearly 200 years after we declared independence because we had no representation in the British parliament, the United States held its first fully free presidential and congressional elections.
Why must this history be retold? Because the legacy of the Voting Rights Act is under attack. An unprecedented number of states have attempted — and many have succeeded — in erecting spurious barriers to voting, including shorter hours and fewer days to vote, more onerous registration procedures and photo ID requirements, among others. And worst of all, the Supreme Court has joined the parade.
The Voting Rights Act was renewed in 2006 by a near-unanimous and bipartisan Congress after voluminous testimony on ongoing issues of discrimination. Nevertheless, two years ago in Shelby v. Holder, a narrow majority of the Supreme Court gutted a crucial part of the law requiring jurisdictions with a history of low voter turnout among minorities to preclear any changes in voting rules and laws with the Department of Justice.
The ink was barely dry on the decision when, within hours, the state of Texas put its pending restrictions into effect — restrictions previously barred by a three-judge appeals court panel. Texas began to enforce one of the strictest photo ID laws in the nation. Voters were required to present a photo ID from a very short list of permitted forms that included, for example, a Texas concealed handgun license, but not a student ID from a public university or a tribal ID card. Within one week of the court’s decision, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and a few other states joined Texas in introducing restrictive voting bills.
Now Congress has an opportunity to undo the damage done by Shelby v. Holder and enact the Voting Rights Advancement Act introduced by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Lewis (D-Ga.). It has received broad and vocal support from the civil rights community because it responds to the unique, modern-day challenges of voting discrimination that have evolved in the 50 years since the Voting Rights Act was initially passed. The Voting Rights Advancement Act recognizes that changing demographics require tools that protect voters nationwide. It also requires that jurisdictions make voting changes public and transparent. Importantly, the bill includes a new preclearance process and would allow the attorney general to send federal observers wherever she decides there is a substantial risk of racial discrimination at the polls on Election Day or during the early voting period.
It has been two years since the Supreme Court struck down the part of the Voting Rights Act that was arguably the most effective means to end voter discrimination and ensure fair elections. The clock is ticking. Unless Congress acts swiftly to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act, voters in 2016 will face the first presidential election in 50 years without strong federal protections to combat racial discrimination in voting.
Nancy K. Kaufman is the chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women.