Today the Voting Rights Act turns 50. Unfortunately, it looks its age, its core softened by the Supreme Court, its once clear-eyed vision blurred by state legislation leading to voting restrictions that disproportionately affect black voters.
In North Carolina, the proud piece of legislation has been battered by Republicans in the General Assembly who passed a list of voting limits after the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act. Fortunately, those changes have been met with a spirited legal challenge from voting rights advocates and the U.S. Department of Justice.
At a federal trial last week, a judge heard claims from both sides. The state claims the changes are protections against fraud. The plaintiffs say that there’s virtually no evidence of fraud but that the new requirements are having a real effect on people who have not been able to vote. Those problems will intensify in 2016 when the new law’s requirement that voters show a photo ID takes effect.
The Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law reports that since 2010, 21 states have new laws making it harder to vote. Next year, 14 of those states will have the new requirements in effect for the first time in a presidential election. Look for long lines and people leaving the polls without voting.
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But the assault on the Voting Rights Act is not uniform. Since 2012, 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that will make it easier to register and vote. Meanwhile in Congress, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York presented three pieces of legislation Wednesday that would make it easier to vote across the nation. Key elements of the bills include allowing online registration and setting up early voting in every state.
There is hope that the Voting Rights Act will regain its power and that voting itself will regain its vigor. The decision by President Lyndon Johnson to sign the law on Aug. 6, 1965, was a great day for American democracy. Johnson said on signing the law:
“This is a victory for the freedom of the American Negro. But it is also a victory for the freedom of the American nation. And every family across this great, entire, searching land will live stronger in liberty, will live more splendid in expectation, and will be prouder to be American because of the act that you have passed that I will sign today.”