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Lawmakers shoring up voter rights laws

Martin Desmarais

Civil rights advocates — including the NAACP — have been scrambling since last June when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and delivered a serious blow to protections for black voters in the United States. But they got a boost earlier this month when legislation was introduced in Congress to restore some of the protections of the Voting Rights Act.

The bill, known as The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, is the first bipartisan effort in Congress to respond to the “Shelby County v. Holder” Supreme Court decision in June that freed nine states as well as several counties and other political jurisdictions from Voting Rights Act restrictions that required changes in voting laws to be subjected to federal preclearance.

The nine states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia) had been restricted due to prior voting violations and evidence of discrimination.

The Voting Rights Amendment, introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., aims to restore protections against discriminatory voting measures and federal preclearance.

The bill updates the coverage formula by making all states and jurisdictions eligible for coverage formula based on voting violations in the last 15 years. States and jurisdictions that have had a clean record over last 15 years would not be subject to coverage. It also calls for greater transparency in elections so voters are made aware of changes, though, it does include some provisions for states to enact reasonable photo identification laws.

“Through months of negotiation and compromise, Congressmen Sensenbrenner and Conyers and I have agreed on a bipartisan and bicameral proposal to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were weakened by the Supreme Court’s decision last summer,” Leahy said. “Our sole focus throughout this entire process was to ensure that no American would be denied his or her constitutional right to vote because of discrimination on the basis of race or color. We believe that this is a strong bipartisan bill that accomplishes this goal and that every member of Congress can support.”

The NAACP came out to recognize the efforts of Congress in introducing the Voting Rights Amendment, but called for even tougher provisions.

“The NAACP appreciates that the U.S. Congress has made a bipartisan effort to update the Voting Rights Act, however we have serious concerns about the ability of some provisions in this bill to protect voters from discrimination at the polls,” said Lorraine Miller, interim president and CEO of the NAACP. “As the nation’s oldest and largest grassroots civil rights organization we have the responsibility to ensure that any proposed legislation is in the best interest of our members, our community and our country. Participation in our democracy should be unfettered and all votes should be properly counted. From the exceptions for voter ID laws to decreased preclearance coverage to increased reliance on costly litigation, there are essential revisions and amendments to this bill that must take place to ensure all voters have fair and equitable access to the ballot box.”

The NAACP has been active in calling for Voting Rights Reform. Earlier this month, on Jan. 10, the organization held a tele-town hall to discuss the need for Congress to update the Voting Rights Act. The town hall, which was hosted by a coalition of civil, human, environmental and labor rights groups, drew 23,000 participants.

Speakers included NAACP head Miller, Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, La Raza President and CEO Janet Murguia, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey, Greenpeace Executive Director Phil Radford, American Sustainable Business Council Co-founder and CEO David Levine and U.S. Student Association President Sophia Zaman.

“The voices of today’s speakers will not be enough. It is up to you who are listening in your communities to raise your voices and demand immediate action. 2015 marks the 50th year of the Voting Rights Act that has protected our vote. Let’s make sure our democracy is not just repaired by 2015, but also made stronger,” Cohen said. “We reauthorized the Voting Rights Act only a few years ago with a sweeping bipartisan majority. We owe it to all those that fought relentlessly for voting rights to make sure Congress acts once again.”

“When our country has been at its worst, our communities have joined together to fight for our livelihoods. It is time to bind our individual voices and collective strength again today. The Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act left the door open for Congress to recommit itself to protecting the fundamental right to vote by ensuring all citizens, no matter their race, have equal and unfettered access to the ballot box,” said Brune. “We have to make sure Congress answers America’s call to action.”

For civil rights and voting rights advocates, it is a crucial time for reform as the battle over changing voting laws has heated up since the “Shelby County v. Holder” Supreme Court decision.

North Carolina is one state to introduce new voting measures since the Supreme Court’s decision, passing a new voter ID bill last August that was signed into law by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and has been lambasted by critics for its potential to exclude minorities, the poor and the young from the voting process. The law requires a government-issued voter ID — a driver’s license, passport, veteran’s ID or a tribal card. It also eliminates same-day registration as well as early registration for those who will be 18 on Election Day and resticts early voting. The U.S. Justice Department filed suit against North Carolina in late September claiming the voter ID law is an illegal form of discrimination against minorities.

On Jan. 16, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinly struck down the state’s voter ID law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls in another instance of the voter rights war raging across the country.

The Pennsylvania law was actually passed by the state in 2012, but barred from enforcement that same year due to a series of temporary injunctions and the state’s inability to counter evidence showing lack of access to the proposed identification.

“This court holds that the photo ID provisions in the Voter ID Law violate the fundamental right to vote and unnecessarily burden the hundreds of thousands of electors who lack compliant photo ID,” Judge McGinley said in his ruling. “Further, a substantial threat still exists to the franchise of hundreds of thousands of registered electors, and uncounted qualified electors, despite respondents’ unfettered ability to continue, strengthen, and clarify voter education efforts and to provide compliant ID to the hundreds of thousands of electors who lack it.”

The NAACP, which has been supporting efforts to shoot down the voter ID law in Pennsylvania, was quick to applaud the ruling.

“This decision helped end our three-year long fight to protect the rights of voters in Pennsylvania,” said Jotaka Eaddy, NAACP voting rights director. “This court recognizes that unnecessary barriers to the ballot box are counter to the principle this nation holds most dear — that all citizens should have free and unfettered access to the ballot box. The NAACP, Pennsylvania State Conference, ACLU, and other plaintiffs have worked tirelessly for this moment and we hope to repeat this victory across the nation.”