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Brennan Center Stands Up for Voting Rights Act

May 16, 2007

For Immediate Release
Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Contact Information:
Jonathan Rosen, BerlinRosen Public Affairs (646) 452–5637

Brennan Center Stands up for Voting Rights Act
Urges Federal Court to Reject Challenge to Key Provisions that Protect the Rights of Minority Voters

New York – The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law urged a three judge panel today to uphold a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that prevents states and local governments from enacting voting practices that discriminate based on race. The Brennan Center urged the court to reject claims from a municipal water district in Austin, Texas that the Act exceeded Congress’s power to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees that the right to vote not be denied or abridged on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The case at issue is Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One (NAMUDNO) v. Gonzales.

No American should doubt that African-American and Latino voters continue to face substantial obstacles to voting. Over the past two election cycles we have seen repeated attempts to impose new restrictions on voting and voter registration that would disproportionately disenfranchise people of color, said Wendy Weiser, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program and lead author of the brief. 

Restrictive voter identification and proof-of-citizenship laws, restrictive voter registration requirements, and racially biased purges of the voter rolls have had the effect of disenfranchising tens of thousands of minority voters. The federal government must continue to have the power to prevent discriminatory election rules, said Weiser.

Since its passage in 1965, the Voting Rights Act has been one of the most effective pieces of civil rights legislation in our nations history. The provisions being challenged in this case have been essential in preserving the voting rights of minorities and deterring states and local government from taking actions to disenfranchise people of color for more than forty years. Congress and the President reaffirmed the Acts importance by reauthorizing key components of the law in 2006. The loss of one of the Acts most important provisions would be a destructive turn for voting rights in this country, said Myrna Pérez, Counsel for the Brennan Center.

The Brennan Center and co-counsel Jenner & Block, LLP argue that the Supreme Court’s slide over the past ten years towards a jurisprudence favoring states rights must stop at the entrance to the voting booth. 

Over the past ten years, the Rehnquist Court cut back on Congress’s powers to protect civil and individual rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, striking down all or portions of key federal laws, like the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  Now the Court should draw a line when it comes to the Voting Rights Act. Since Reconstruction the Court has deferred to Congresss authority when it comes to the delicate intersection between racial discrimination and our democracy. They should continue to do so, continued Weiser.

The Brennan Center’s brief argues that the concerns animating the Rehnquist Courts “states’ rights” decisions do not apply when Congress legislates to prevent race discrimination in the franchise. The brief also marshals legislative and early judicial history to show that under the original understanding of the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress was understood to have broad enforcement powers to protect the right to vote as it saw fit.

The brief is available here.

Note: Weiser and Pérez are available to discuss the case, the Voting Rights Act and threats to the franchise faced by voters of color across the country.