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Votes

Commentary: Voting Rights Need Protection

The Supreme Court had an historic week recently with major decisions on gay marriage, immigration and voting. I am particularly concerned about the decision that I believe does major damage to the Voting Rights Act.

I grew up in a segregated Virginia. Not only were there laws requiring that black and white children go to separate schools, that black and white customers be served at separate lunch counters, and that blacks always sit in the back of the bus, but there were laws designed to keep African Americans from voting. My earliest political involvement was in efforts to break down these barriers. I have always been disappointed that it took federal court decisions and federal laws to overcome these discriminatory practices, rather than the state legislature acknowledging that they were wrong and repealing them. Instead of desegregating the schools as the Supreme Court directed, Virginia political leaders undertook a decade-long campaign of massive resistance that ultimately was unsuccessful.

A key part of extending civil rights to all citizens was the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It required states with a history of voting discrimination to have their laws reviewed and approved by the U.S. Justice Department. Virginia was one of those states because voter discrimination was rampant. Under laws passed beginning early in the 20th century by the dominant Democratic Party machine, voters had to complete a voter registration form that was so complex that few blacks were successful but whites—no doubt with some help—were able to complete. The $1.50 poll tax as a requirement to vote kept some people from the polls as did the requirement that the tax be paid three years in a row at least six months before the election. The result of these and other laws led to Virginia having one of the lowest voter participation rates in the country. And Virginia’s legislative district lines were drawn to exclude the possibility of a minority getting elected to office and to keep power in the rural areas of the state. Under a Supreme Court decision and the Voting Rights Act, Virginia had to hold elections three years in a row—in 1981, 1982 and 1983—until district lines were drawn to satisfy the federal review of fairness.

The Voting Rights Act and other court actions and laws ended much of the discrimination in voting and redistricting. The current Supreme Court seems to think that certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act are no longer needed. I do not agree. Justice Ginsburg said it best in her dissent to the court’s decision, “Throwing out pre-clearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Each year I see efforts by the now Republican majority to restrict or discourage minorities from voting under the guise of preventing unidentified voter fraud. I hope you will join me in encouraging the U.S. Congress to pass new provisions to the Voting Rights Act right away to ensure that minority-voting rights are protected.