Insight News

Feb 07th

Voting rights at risk

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The United States Supreme Court – in a sharply divided, 5 - 4 ruling – struck down a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The act, which ensures that previously disenfranchised voters – in particular, African-Americans – have guaranteed equal access to the ballot box, had Section 4 stripped by the High Court this past Tuesday (June 25). Section 4 required a “pre-clearance” for nine states and certain jurisdictions that meant they had to get approval from the United States Department of Justice before making any voting changes. Congress last reviewed the pre-clearance formula in 2006.

With Section 4 being struck down, many who had hoped the court would have ruled differently say Section 5 is now in jeopardy. Section 5, which is the teeth for Section 4, freezes election practices or procedures in certain states until the new procedures have been subjected to review, either after an administrative review by the United States Attorney General.

“The Supreme Court’s decision in striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act rolls back the clock of civil rights,” said Nekima Levy-Pounds, associate professor of law and director of the Community Justice Project at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. “It’s a major setback.”

According to Levy-Pounds, though nearly 50 years after the adoption of Voting Rights Act, the rights of African-Americans and others continue to be trampled upon.

“In 2006 a 15,000 page record detailing barriers for people of color to exercise their right to vote was delivered to Congress, so it’s clear we still need the Voting Rights Act,” said Levy-Pounds.

Speaking in a historical context, the legal scholar called on people to remember incidents such as “Bloody Sunday,” where in 1965 some 600 civil rights marchers in Alabama were attacked with billy clubs and tear gas by state and local lawmen and the killing of three civil rights workers in 1964 in Philadelphia, Miss., who were attempting to register African-American voters. With the decision of the Supreme Court to strike down Section 4 of the act, Levy-Pounds feels the five justices who voted in the majority wrongly concluded that racism and disenfranchisement is no longer an issue in America.

“It’s almost like we’re living in a post-racial society because we have a Black president even though we’re seeing time and again that states are trying to take away people’s right to vote – even in Minnesota we had to fight to keep our rights intact,” said Levy-Pounds. “There has been some progress made, clearly, but it doesn’t rise to the level of the Supreme Court decision.”

Levy-Pounds said the prospect of relying on Congress to remedy the court’s ruling is frightening.

“It’s very clear that with all the vitriol that’s been spewed – even by members of Congress – it’s going to be difficult for Congress to reach an agreement on which districts need oversight,” said Levy-Pounds.

Keesha Gaskins, former executive director of the League of Women Voters Minnesota, agrees that the ruling was a setback for civil rights, but remains hopeful that Congress can come up with legislation to fully protect voting rights.

“There’s no question that some representatives in Congress are not motivated to do anything (on this issue), but it’s wrong to say that Congress won’t move,” said Gaskins.

Gaskins was mindful to note that other sections of the Voting Rights Act remain intact and that Attorney General Eric Holder has already stated that he and the U.S. Department of Justice will actively enforce the remaining previsions of the act. The former state head of the League of Women Voters also said civil rights organizations and monitoring groups will have to come up with other methods of insuring that states and jurisdictions formerly monitored by Section 4 continue to be held accountable.

“This isn’t the death nail of the Voting Rights Act,” said Gaskins.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) co-author of the Right to Vote Amendment said in a statement, “(Tuesday’s) Supreme Court decision is an assault on our most fundamental right as Americans. While the Court is correct that current law to protect voters from discriminatory voting laws is outdated, it is because it’s not expansive enough. The right to vote is under attack across the country. Already in 2013, more than 30 states have introduced over 80 restrictive voting laws that often target low-income, student, elderly and minority voters.”

The 5th District Congressman called on his fellow representatives to quickly act to pass legislation ensuring citizens’ voting rights.

“As disappointed as we are by today’s decision, it demonstrates why we cannot wait to enact a constitutional amendment that would guarantee an affirmative right to vote for all Americans – no matter where they live,” said Ellison in a statement. “A country built on the foundation of civic participation should never tolerate any politically-motivated threats to our ability to express our views at the polls. We will continue to work with our colleagues and build the grassroots support needed to ensure we protect our right to vote.”


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