Last September, the United States Commission on Civil Rights told President Trump the brutal truth about voting rights. Alabama’s role in that truth was prominent. And U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, is again trying to turn that prominence into a victory for those who value equal access to the ballot box.
“In states across the country,” the commission wrote in its letter, “voting procedures that wrongly prevent some citizens from voting — including but not limited to: voter identification laws, voter roll purges, proof of citizenship measures, challenges to voter eligibility, and polling places moves or closings — have been enacted and have a disparate impact on voters of color and poor citizens.” Sewell’s Voting Rights Advancement Act, which she has recently introduced in Congress, could be the solution.
The devil in the commission’s details was the Supreme Court’s reprehensible 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, the Alabama case in which the court effectively ended the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Shelby County’s case claimed the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance formula that required changes to voting laws to receive Justice Department approval was unconstitutional because of its age and unfair damage on Southern states. The court agreed.
The results have been awful. States with a history of using discriminatory voting laws -- states like Alabama -- have installed new requirements that make it harder for people of color and the poor to cast a ballot or register to vote, or both. Overly stringent voter-ID laws crafted by Republican lawmakers have proliferated in Southern states and become code for the battle to control Election Day turnout between the left and the right.
In its letter, the commission told Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and then-House Speaker Paul Ryan that it “unanimously calls on the United States Department of Justice to pursue more Voting Rights Act enforcement in order to address the aggressive efforts by state and local officials to limit the vote of citizens of color, citizens with disabilities, and limited English proficient citizens.” That hasn’t happened. And that’s where Sewell is stepping in.
Sewell’s Voting Rights Advancement Act would essentially reinstall the 1965 Voting Rights Act’s preclearance provision with a new and constitutionally supported formula. The proposed legislation has 207 co-sponsors -- all of them Democrats -- including 45 from Southern states, The Institute for Southern Studies has reported.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act exists for a reason, then and now, and the fact that states have created newly restrictive voting-rights laws since the Shelby County decision proves the necessity of the preclearance provision. Many states, including Alabama, can’t be trusted to protect the voting rights of all residents.
Honest members of Congress know that. Whether lawmakers will right this wrong and remove this racially and politically biased voting restriction is another matter.