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
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1615 GMT (0015 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1728 GMT (0128 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT