I vividly remember a road trip I took as a young man with my father to the Deep South. When we stopped at gas stations, I watched out the window of our vehicle as black attendants pumped gas while white station owners collected the money. I saw first-hand the separation of water fountains and restroom facilities and wondered how communities could allow this practice to continue.
Later, as a representative in the Wisconsin Legislature, I again saw racial injustice up close. While attending events and spending time in parts of Milwaukee’s majority black neighborhoods, I listened to constituents as they described unnecessary obstructions that prohibited them from voting. Their personal stories were the inspiration behind my work to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.
Ensuring that every eligible American voter has the ability to cast his or her ballot without intimidation, preclusion and prejudice is a constitutional right. Since my earliest days in Congress, I have fought to protect it.
In 1982, I supported the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I played an instrumental role in the Act’s 2006 reauthorization. However, it was the 2006 reauthorization that was put before the United States Supreme Court for consideration and ultimately struck down.
The court declared that voter discrimination was no longer a problem, and removed language designed to stop discrimination before it mars an election but let stand provisions that allow lawsuits after a discriminatory law takes effect. Unfortunately, there is no way to remedy injustice at the polls after an election, leaving disenfranchised voters with few options.
One of the law’s core protections is its pre-clearance system. Before the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, discrimination at the polls and the federal government’s response was similar to that of a leaking boat. Local and state governments would discriminate against minority voters. Congress would then ban the discriminatory practices, only to have states find and implement new ways to discriminate. Rather than frantically trying to repair individual holes in the process, the Voting Rights Act acted as a lacquer that protected the entire process and secured it from further damage.
Pre-clearance forced states with a documented history of discrimination to allow the federal government to review certain changes to voting laws and practices before they were implemented. In this way, elections could proceed without the fear of discrimination at the polls.
In 2013, in Shelby vs. Holder, the Supreme Court held that, while preclearance is a constitutional response to voter discrimination; it is unconstitutional to apply it to states based on a 1965 formula — which was what the 1982 and 2006 reauthorizations were modeled after. The result is that pre-clearance remains, but almost no jurisdictions are subject to it.
In response to this ruling, I introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act in 2015, and reintroduced it again last week with my Democratic colleague Rep. John Conyers of Michigan. Among other things, the bill modernizes the original 1965 law — which applied preclearance to the same nine states for 48 years — so that the pre-clearance rules apply equally to every state in the country.
As a nation, we have made significant strides in correcting the mistakes of the past and fighting against voter discrimination but it’s imperative that we continue our efforts to ensure that history never again repeats itself.
The Voting Rights Act is not only about ending discrimination at the polls. It also gives faith to the voters who need to know that their vote counts and the election process is fair. Despite previous congressional inaction on this bill, I will continue to pursue it because no American eligible to vote should be silenced or deterred from voting due to the color of his or her skin.
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