Anniversaries can be celebratory or somber. Today we celebrate the 51st anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and it is the kind of anniversary in which we hail the success of the act, while also acknowledging the deficiencies in our democracy that make the full act necessary.
One of the most sweeping civil rights laws of the 20th century, the VRA was designed to combat discrimination in voting. The law outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many states after the Civil War. In 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down section 4 of the act, which was the coverage formula that determined which jurisdictions would be subject to Section 5, the section that required certain cities, states and jurisdictions to obtain prior federal approval for proposed election changes. This is the somber part of this anniversary. We are entering our first presidential election in 50 years without the full protection of the act, and, what’s worse, Congress has failed to act to restore the Voting Rights Act.
Recent victories in the courts underscore the need for a restored Voting Rights Act. Discrimination in voting did not stop simply because the coverage formula was stricken by the Supreme Court. Instead, states formerly covered by section 5 launched an all-out assault on voting rights, boldly removing any mask on the discriminatory intent of legislators. Recently courts have struck down the election laws in my home state of Texas and in North Carolina, two states covered in whole or in part, by section 5. In one of the most watched voting rights cases in recent years, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit invalidated various provisions of North Carolina’s election law, including the law’s changes to early voting and voter ID. The court noted that the new provisions of the law targeted African Americans with “almost surgical precision” and that the “North Carolina general assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent.” If section 5 had been fully functional, such a blatant discriminatory law would not have made it on the books in North Carolina and many would have saved thousands of dollars in litigation costs, hours of time and countless moments of frustration and anguish.
However, the celebration in this anniversary is that hardworking men and women across this country, working people in unions and friends of labor, continue to fight to protect the voting rights of families and have been successful in beating back laws that suppress the vote, such as those in Texas and North Carolina. American hunger for democracy and justice are tougher than these laws and advocates are making full use of the remaining provisions of the VRA as we await a congressional fix.
Without a doubt, Congress needs to act now to fully restore the Voting Rights Act to ensure that every vote counts and civic participation is made accessible to every single American. But, while we recognize there is much more to do to fight discrimination at the polls and we contend with a Congress that is failing at its job to protect voting rights, we celebrate the heroes of today, who have put on their gloves to fight a fight they should not have to, with the VRA tools they have. Working people in unions stand in solidarity with these soldiers as we march toward a democracy for all. Happy anniversary.