Guest column from LWV: The true promise of suffrage

  • MARIE GAUTHIER

Published: 7/3/2020 4:36:16 PM

The 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, declares that the right to vote can’t be denied on the basis of sex. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibited states from denying a male citizen the right to vote based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” They were meaningful extensions of voting rights in America; but while the progress was real, it was an incomplete victory.

Americans of color continued to face barriers to voting in the South, such as poll taxes and literacy tests. While literacy tests were supposedly about making sure people were educated enough to vote, they were disproportionately administered to Black Americans to prevent them from registering to vote. (An actual question: “Write every other word in this first line and print every third word in same line [original type smaller and first line ended at comma] but capitalize the fifth word that you write.”)

It took the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, which outlawed literacy tests, among other things, to fulfill the promises of the 15th and 19th Amendments. While the VRA didn’t make discrimination disappear overnight, it gave voters of color a constitutional basis on which to challenge discriminatory practices in court.

Then, in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the VRA, Section 4, without which another portion of the Act, Section 5, was uninforceable.

According to Amy Howe, in Details on Shelby County v. Holder: In Plain English, Section 5 was designed “to prevent discrimination in voting by requiring all state and local governments with a history of voting discrimination to get approval from the federal government before making any changes to their voting laws or procedures, no matter how small.” Certain states and jurisdictions with documented histories of voting discrimination could not enforce photo ID laws, for example, without showing that the ID requirement did not discriminate on the basis of race.

Section 4 established a “coverage formula” to identify which locations suffered from the worst records of racial discrimination and would be subject to that pre-approval. Without Section 4 to determine who is covered by it, Section 5 is toothless.

The results have been immediate. In recent years, politicians in dozens of states have erected intentional barriers to our right to vote, including forcing discriminatory voter ID and proof-of-citizenship restrictions on eligible voters, reducing polling place hours in communities of color, cutting early voting opportunities and illegally purging voters from the rolls.

In December, the U.S. House passed H.R. 4, the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA), which would not only restore the original VRA but would also provide greater transparency and protection for voters on the electoral process.

The VRAA would create a new standard by which election pre-approval is required. This can stop voting violations before they begin, meaning less voter suppression, a problem that disproportionately affects communities of color.

Access to the ballot box should not be a partisan issue. Passing the VRAA ensures that every voter — regardless of where they live — has equal access to the ballot box and is protected from unfair laws and practices that make it harder for people to vote.

The House has done its part; now it’s time for the Senate to act. S. 562 continues to languish in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Join the League in contacting your senators to urge full passage of this vital legislation. With the coronavirus pandemic becoming yet another tool of voter suppression, and Election Day just months away, protecting the right to vote is as important as ever. Passing the VRAA would be a major step towards fulfilling the true promise of suffrage.

Marie Gauthier is the president of the League of Women Voters of Franklin County.

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