By: Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner
The fundamental goals and bipartisan legacy of the Voting Rights Act are imperiled by Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department and the administration he serves.
The beleaguered attorney general recently asserted that common-sense efforts to ensure the identity and citizenship of voters represent a modern “poll tax” — inconsistent with the Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965. Historic in nature, the civil rights law sought to end decades of racial discrimination that prevented minorities from fully exercising their constitutional right to vote.
In 1982, I helped lead negotiations to reauthorize it. The House passed the reauthorization 389-24, and President Ronald Reagan signed it. In July 2005, I stood before the NAACP’s national convention in Milwaukee and announced my intention as chairman of the Judiciary Committee to introduce and move legislation reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act for an additional 25 years.
A year later, the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006 passed the House 390-33; it cleared the Senate 98-0, and President George W. Bush signed it into law in a rare moment of historic bipartisan unity.
Holder’s legally undisciplined allegations, steeped in election-year politics, ignore the 24th Amendment’s prohibition on any taxes that deny or abridge a citizen’s right to vote. He also overlooks that state voter identification laws permit citizens to obtain necessary voting identification free of cost.
More troubling, Holder’s reckless and incendiary remarks reflect a profound and potentially malicious misrepresentation of the Voting Rights Act.
The legislative record accompanying consideration of the Voting Rights Act is among the most extensive in congressional history. The hearings preceding its 1965 passage exhaustively document state efforts to disenfranchise minority voters.
The 1982 reauthorization hearings produced similar findings. Then in 2006, the House Judiciary Committee held 10 hearings that documented the urgent need to renew expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
While the Justice Department has broad authority to vindicate the voting rights of eligible citizens, nothing in the Voting Rights Act’s legislative history supports the argument that it was enacted to defeat all efforts to determine whether those who cast ballots in state and federal elections are eligible to do so. The legislation was enacted to remedy forms of racial discrimination — literacy exams, moral character requirements and subjective interpretation tests — relied upon to disenfranchise minority voters.
As the Supreme Court noted in its landmark 1964 decision, Reynolds v. Sims, “The right of suffrage can be denied by a debasement or dilution of the weight of a citizen’s vote just as effectively as by wholly prohibiting the free exercise of the franchise.”
The Voting Rights Act was passed a year later and renewed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 1982 and 2006 to protect eligible citizens’ right to freely cast their votes. It was not passed to disenfranchise lawful voters by permitting ineligible voters to corrupt the balloting process. It does not allow unlawful voters the right to usurp lawful voters’ constitutional franchise.
In fact, Holder’s contention that the Voting Rights Act prohibits efforts to preserve the integrity of the voting process is antithetical to its core purpose and destructive to its constitutional imperative to protect the voting rights of eligible citizens. Both the Voting Rights Act and state voter identification laws serve the same purpose: ensuring voting integrity.
Recasting the Voting Rights Act’s carefully crafted provisions as a partisan bludgeon to invalidate all voter identification efforts subverts the law’s fundamental goals, degrades the integrity of the franchise and heightens the law’s vulnerability to legal challenge. This nakedly political enforcement approach is an act of legal malfeasance that threatens the bipartisan support the law has long enjoyed. Too much is at stake to permit this to happen.
When Reagan signed the 1982 reauthorization, he offered insight that Holder and President Barack Obama will be wise to heed. “There are differences,” Reagan noted, “over how to attain the equality we seek for all our people. And sometimes amidst all the overblown rhetoric, the differences tend to seem bigger than they are. But actions speak louder than words. This legislation proves our unbending commitment to voting rights. It also proves that differences can be settled in a spirit of good will and good faith. As I’ve said before, the right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished.”
Mr. Holder, stop diminishing the luster of the Voting Rights Act by politicizing this rare and shining example of historic bipartisan unity.
Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) served as chairman of the Judiciary Committee from 2001 to 2007. He is chairman of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.