On June 25, 2013, in its notorious decision Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court dismantled the Voting Rights Act, one of the most important and effective civil rights laws in our nation’s history.
The pending Voting Rights Amendment Act (VRAA) would help restore some of the voting protections that were lost in Shelby County, but, despite its bipartisan support, Republican leadership has balked at moving it forward. So on June 25 of this year, precisely two years after Shelby County was decided, hundreds of activists from dozens of organizations joined together near the Roanoke, Va., office of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., to demand full restoration of the Voting Rights Act. Among those at the “Rally for Voting Rights and Our Democracy” was Alliance for Justice summer associate Blake Paradis, who recounts her experience below.
At 7:00 a.m., I arrived at Union Station to find four busloads of activists ready to revive the Voting Rights Act. Organized by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, groups representing the span of environmental, labor, civil rights, and others shared stories, practiced chants, and connected over the course of a four-hour bus ride. Although we represented groups with different constituencies and different priorities, everyone was committed to restoring the essential voter protections that the Supreme Court cast aside in Shelby County.
Upon arriving in Roanoke, we were warmly greeted with cheers and applause from locals thanking us for our support. Speakers at the rally described the significance of democracy for all of our initiatives and pushed us to engage our communities. Looking at the vast diversity among us, it was hard not to feel inspired. Media stations from around the country covered the rally, from social media and local news to the Ed Show on MSNBC, media outlets displayed our call to restore the Voting Rights Act.
Senator Goodlatte has said that an update to the Voting Rights Act is unnecessary unless new evidence of voter discrimination surfaces, but the activists in Roanoke, congressional leaders, and voters navigating an ever-expanding list of restrictive ballot access laws all know how badly a fix is needed. The day after our rally, Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. introduced a new piece of reform legislation, the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015, with House leaders from the Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus, and Asian Pacific American Caucus.
After the Supreme Court gutted sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Congress began working on the Voting Rights Amendment Act. But it quickly became clear that Republican leadership in Congress would not support an amendment. So instead, Senator Leahy introduced the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 to provide a more comprehensive set of voter protections than proposed in the VRAA. The new legislation also responds directly to the concerns identified by the Supreme Court in Shelby County. “The previous bill we did in a way to try and get bipartisan support—which we did,” Senator Leahy told The Nation. “We had the Republican majority leader of the House [Eric Cantor] promise us that if we kept it like that it would come up for a vote. It never did. . . . So this time I decided to listen to the voters who had their right to vote blocked.” The new bill requires the Department of Justice to pre-approve changes to voting laws in states that have had 15 voting violations in the past 25 years, provides greater transparency in elections, and gives federal courts the ability to force states to obtain preclearance if voting changes are found to be discriminatory.
The activists I met in Roanoke have vowed to stay vigilant protecting voters in their communities, and they’re not alone. Rallies like the one I attended are expanding all across the country. Momentum is building to restore the VRA. The words Miles Rapoport, president of Common Cause, shared at the event are hitting home to Americans across ideological and political spectrums: “we want to live in a democracy where people select their representation, not one where representatives get to choose who can vote.”