Forty-eight years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) into law, codifying the 15th Amendment’s guarantee of the right to vote free from racial discrimination. The voting landscape looks quite different today than it did nearly five decades ago, in large part due to the effectiveness of the VRA. It is unmistakable that our country has made significant strides toward a more fair and inclusive democracy.
And yet with the Supreme Court’s recent Shelby County v. Holder decision, we are, in some ways, right back where we started. The Shelby County decision severely handicapped the VRA, rendering inoperable the formula that determined which states needed to obtain federal approval, or “preclearance,” before enacting any voting changes. While the preclearance provision of the VRA was not the only tool to combat racial discrimination in voting, it was certainly the most effective, singlehandedly blocking 86 proposed voting changes in the past 15 years, and deterring countless more.
While a giant question mark now hangs on the future of the VRA, voting rights are already in jeopardy. Immediately following the Supreme Court’s decision, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that the state would move forward with the voter identification law that had been blocked last year by a federal court, due to its discriminatory effect on poor and minority voters.
Lawmakers and the Obama administration are not standing idly by. Last month, both the Senate and the House Judiciary Committees held hearings on the future of the VRA. On July 25, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice would support a lawsuit to “bail in” Texas, which, if successful, would subject the state to preclearance. And just last week, President Obama met with a small group of civil rights leaders and elected officials to outline plans for ensuring the right to vote in the wake of the Shelby County decision.
These actions are encouraging, but they are only the beginning. President Johnson spoke passionately about the need for the VRA at its signing 48 years ago, and those words are no less true today. Congress must look past the partisan divide and devise a new formula to restore the VRA to its full strength, so that we may “move step by step . . . along the path toward American freedom.”
(Photo: President Lyndon Johnson signs Voting Rights Act of 1965; WikiCommons)