Black, Hispanic and Asian American lawmakers said Tuesday that their constituents are particularly vulnerable to losing their right to vote if Congress doesn't pass legislation to restore a key provision of the federal Voting Rights Act that was tossed out two years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In announcing #RestoreTheVote, an initiative aimed at rallying public support for the Voting Rights Advancement Act, Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) noted that Tuesday is exactly one year from the day in 2016 that Americans will go to the polls to choose a new president. The bill, which has 133 co-sponsors, would require 13 states with a history of voter discrimination to seek approval from the Justice Department before changing voting laws and procedures. That requirement, known as "pre-clearance," was voided for nine states in the court's 2013 decision in the case brought by Shelby County, Ala., a Birmingham suburb.
"We no longer have to count how many marbles are in a jar," Sewell said, referring to the kinds of tactics that were used at the polls in the South to deny black voters the right to cast their ballots. But, she added, "there are still laws and decisions that make it harder for people to vote."
Sewell said several states have passed laws that requires voters present a specific type of identification at the polls. Alabama, which enacted a strict voter ID law last year, is currently facing criticism and scrutiny by voting rights advocates because it closed 31 driver's license offices, mostly in rural and predominantly black areas. Driver's licenses, as well as non-driver IDs issued by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, are the most popular form of acceptable identification.
Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), chair of the Democratic Caucus, both talked about the importance of voting rights laws to ensuring that Latinos are able to participate in governing the country — both as voters and elected officials.
"For some reason it's in vogue to attack the Latino community. We've been called rapists, marijuana smugglers and Fed Ex packages to be tracked," Sanchez said, referring to comments by some Republican presidential candidates when talking about immigration reform. "The only way we’re going to stop those attacks on our community is to raise our voices and to participate and to vote. But when that right to vote is restricted, it limits your ability to stand up and fight for yourself."
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) said that the 1965 Voting Rights Act helped to fully restore voting rights to Chinese Americans, who were stripped of their rights by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Although that law was repealed in 1943, the voting rights law made sure that Asian American voters got translated voting materials, absentee ballots and "freedom from intimidation at the polls."
Since the Supreme Court decision, she said, "states like Texas and Alabama have raced out of the gate to enact terrible laws that make it harder for communities of color to exercise their fundamental right to vote."
In addition to a social media push using #RestoreTheVote, the lawmakers plan to engage in a weekly action called "Restoration Tuesday," in observance of the day of the week when most elections are held. The will wear a lapel pin calling attention to the issue and raise the issue in Congress. They also want others to make noise about voting rights.
Others, including House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn (S.C.) spoke at the news conference, urging their Republican colleagues to join them in passing the bill. Several noted that the last time the Voting Rights Acts was reauthorized in 2006, it was under former president George W. Bush, a Republican.
Clyburn also noted that the Senate version of the bill has bipartisan support, sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). No Republicans in the House have signed onto the bill.
The bill is in the House Judiciary Committee and a staff member said Tuesday that "the Voting Rights Act is alive and well and protecting the freedom to vote ... While the Supreme Court struck down the old coverage formula that required certain states to preclear their voting rule changes with the federal government, the Court left in place other important tools in the Voting Rights Act, including the section that allows federal judges to place jurisdictions under a preclearance regime if those jurisdictions act in an unconstitutional and discriminatory manner. So, strong remedies against unconstitutional voting discrimination remain in place today."
Next year is the first presidential election since the Supreme Court's decision, and voting rights is likely to be a major issue for Democrats. Presidential contenders Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders frequently criticize Republican state lawmakers for enacting laws that they say are aimed at discouraging minorities and young people from voting. Civil rights groups and prominent activists also have begun to ramp up discussion and action concerning the issue.
In the 2012 election, grass-roots political groups used the argument that Republican-backed voter ID laws were aimed at suppressing the black vote and denying President Obama a second term. Several speakers at rallies for Clinton over the weekend urged mostly black audiences to defy such efforts by making sure they register and vote.