Suppress Votes? I’d Rather Lose My Job
DURING my 10 years in the Wisconsin State Legislature, I spent significant time in Milwaukee’s majority black neighborhoods. I listened as constituents described obstructions to their constitutional right to vote.
In those days I came to believe that we needed a strong Voting Rights Act. Our credibility as elected officials depends on the fairness of our elections. So after joining Congress, I supported the law’s reauthorization in 1982, and, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I led successful efforts to reauthorize it in 2006.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a portion of this most recent authorization. If Congress doesn’t act soon, 2016 will be the first time since 1964 that the United States will elect a president without the full protections of the law. Modernizing the act to address the Supreme Court’s concerns should be one of Congress’s highest priorities.
Enacted in 1965, the Voting Rights Act began a healing process that ameliorated decades of discrimination. It is vital to this country’s commitment to never again permit racial prejudice to determine who has access to a ballot.
One of the law’s core protections is its preclearance system. Before the law’s passage, states and local governments would discriminate against minority voters, Congress or courts would ban the discriminatory practices, and states would find new ways to discriminate.
Preclearance sought to remedy that problem by requiring states and localities with a documented history of discrimination to allow the federal government to review certain changes to voting practices before they are implemented. There is no adequate remedy for voter discrimination after an election because there is no way to know who would have won absent discrimination. Preclearance prevents discrimination before it affects elections.
During the 2006 reauthorization, the Judiciary Committees held about 20 hearings. Congress amassed a legislative record of more than 15,000 pages in which it documented discrimination and demonstrated “the continued need for federal oversight.” Both the 1982 and 2006 reauthorizations, however, maintained the same 1965 criteria, later updated in the 1970s, for determining which states would be subject to preclearance.
In 2013, the Supreme Court held in Shelby County v. Holder that while preclearance was a constitutional response to voter discrimination, it was also unconstitutional to apply it to states based on a decades-old formula. A result is that very few jurisdictions are subject to preclearance today. The law’s strongest protections have been rendered meaningless.
I introduced the Voting Rights Act of 2015 as a response to that decision. When the justices handed down the ruling, nine states, mostly in the Deep South, as well as parts of six other states, had to preclear their voting changes with the government. My bill would modernize the act so that the preclearance rules applied equally to every state in the country.
Under the bill, a state or jurisdiction could be subject to preclearance if a court ruled that it had discriminated against voters on the basis of race five or more times in the most recent 15 years. States that stopped discriminating automatically would fall out of the bill’s protections; states that started discriminating would fall in.
In this way, the bill responds to the Supreme Court’s concerns about the dated formula and resurrects the protections of the law that have been a part of American elections for five decades.
The bill also includes important transparency provisions. One of the most effective ways to suppress voting is to change the rules. The proposed Voting Rights Act would require officials to give public notice within 48 hours of certain voting changes that are made 180 days before a federal election. Local governments may have valid reasons to change polling locations or the resources they spend on an election, but the public should be well informed about them before Election Day.
We watched this problem unfold recently in Arizona when thousands of people waited hours to vote in both the Democratic and Republican primaries. The culprit was fewer resources devoted to voting. Maricopa County in Arizona, for example, had just 60 polling stations. This was down from at least 200 stations four years ago, and 400 stations in 2008. The proposed bill would have ensured that meaningful debate over polling stations happened before the primary. More people might have voted. Would that have changed the results? We’ll never know.
The Voting Rights Act of 2015, which has more than 100 co-sponsors, 13 of them Republicans, has been introduced in the House and referred to the Judiciary Committee, where it awaits action. Some of my colleagues view the bill as unnecessary because of the progress we have made against voter discrimination. The bill’s structure, however, ensures that preclearance will apply only if in fact discrimination occurs.
Ensuring that every eligible voter can cast a ballot without fear, deterrence and prejudice is a basic American right. I would rather lose my job than suppress votes to keep it.
The Voting Rights Act not only stops discrimination but also strengthens the public’s faith that votes will be counted and elections remain fair.
The 2016 primary season has been marred by hateful rhetoric and ugly politics. Passing the Voting Rights Act of 2015 would be Congress’s most enlightened response.
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