This month, nearly 100,000 Americans joined together in Selma, Ala., to honor the memory of those who marched and risked their lives 50 years ago on Bloody Sunday, when Alabama state troopers attacked, beat and fired tear gas at hundreds of peaceful protesters marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to demand the fundamental right to vote for all.
The determination and courage of those marchers helped spur the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which for the last half century successfully combated voting discrimination based on race and ensured equal access to the ballot box for all qualified voters. Throughout the nation, and in the South in particular, the rate of voter registration for African-Americans, who were historically denied their right to vote in many parts of the country, skyrocketed in the aftermath of the act’s passage.
One of the act’s most effective tools was Section 5, which required certain states and localities with a documented history of racial discrimination in voting to submit any voting changes to the federal government for pre-approval. Forty counties in North Carolina faced this requirement. Section 5 prevented hundreds of discriminatory voting laws from taking effect and deterred countless others.
That all changed in June 2013 when, in a huge blow to voting rights, a divided U.S. Supreme Court struck down the coverage formula that determined which jurisdictions were required to seek pre-approval for any changes to local voting laws. While the pre-approval requirement still exists, it is now up to Congress to determine the new formula that will determine which jurisdictions will be subject to it. In this vacuum has come a wave of new state laws seeking to curb access to the ballot box.
Never miss a local story.
what many observers called the worst voter suppression law in the country, eliminating or reducing many of the practices that had been responsible for a surge in voter participation in our state. Those cuts included a week of early voting, used by 2.5 million North Carolinians and more than 70 percent of African-American voters in the 2008 and 2012 elections, and the complete elimination of same-day registration, which 250,000 North Carolinians had relied on in past elections to register or update their registration information and vote.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups are using existing sections of the Voting Rights Act to challenge provisions of North Carolina’s law in federal court, as well as other recently passed restrictions in other states where the right to vote is under attack.
But without a robust and renewed Voting Rights Act, these new state laws have created a chaotic election landscape where it is now much more difficult for eligible voters to exercise their right to register and cast their ballots.
Republican and Democratic members of the U.S. Congress this year introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015 (H.R. 885). While this bipartisan bill is not perfect, it can repair much of the damage done by the Supreme Court by providing modern, flexible protections to combat voter discrimination wherever it might arise in the country.
Unfortunately, the bill has not moved in Congress, and not a single member of North Carolina’s congressional delegation has signed on as a co-sponsor. The right to vote is a sacred and essential part of our democracy. It is also a bipartisan value. The Voting Rights Act itself was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson and extended by four of his Republican successors: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
As President Obama said in his remarks from Edmund Pettus Bridge on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, “If we want to honor this day, Congress must pledge to make it their mission to restore (the Voting Rights Act) this year. That’s how we honor those on this bridge.”
North Carolina’s elected representatives in the House and Senate could honor those heroes and show their commitment to voting rights for all by co-sponsoring H.R. 885 and helping to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act.
Jennifer Rudinger is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.