Today is a dark day in our nation’s history. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional, rendering the 48-year-old legislation impotent to protect citizens from voter suppression. Section 4 lists the states that must obtain “preclearance” from the Department of Justice before instituting changes to their voter laws. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said: “Throwing out preclearance 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.”
Only 48 years ago, on March 7, 1965, men, women, and children absorbed blasts of water, bone-crushing blows from police batons, and profound humiliation as Selma, Ala., police dragged limp black bodies over concrete on the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They had assembled on that day, which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” to march from Selma to Montgomery in protest of voter suppression and intimidation that had plagued the entire South. Ten days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent the Voting Rights Act to Congress. The bill passed in the Senate on May 26 by a vote of 77 – 19 and passed in the House on July 9 of that year. President Johnson signed the Act into law with Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and others present on August 6.
Flash forward to Fall 2012. I launched a blog series called “Watch the Vote” because, as of August 2012, 30 states had introduced legislation or enacted laws to hinder voters’ access to voting over the previous year. The Fair Elections Legal Network crafted this map to chart the spread of legal voter suppression initiatives across the nation. Notice, Alabama is one of the states that has recently passed voter restriction law that has not been precleared by the Department of Justice. Its new law, requiring photo ID and proof of citizenship, was set to take effect in 2014 before the Supreme Court ruled last week that Arizona’s voter ID law, which Alabama used as a model for its own, is unconstitutional.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court today struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that targeted states with histories of racial discrimination, saying the formula for choosing the states subject to "preclearance" is "based on 40-year-old data." The court's decision states that Congress can revise the formula under which it decides which jurisdictions are subject to oversight:
"Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions," the decision reads.
Congress could have updated the coverage formula at that time, but did not do so. Its failure to act leaves us today with no choice but to declare §4(b) unconstitutional. The formula in that section can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance. Our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting found in §2. We issue no holding on §5 itself, only on the coverage formula. Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions. …
Read the full decision HERE.
Our country’s laws represent our values and our moral compass as Americans. They set norms, define transgressions, and mete out consequences for actions. And almost 50 years ago, our nation realized the harassment, intimidation, bureaucratic shenanigans, and violence so many African-Americans and other minority communities experienced when trying to exercise their rights to vote and participate in our great democracy. Our intolerance of such injustice led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — a great triumph in the defense of life, dignity, and equality.
Notwithstanding the near-universal praise the Voting Rights Act has received for ending some of the most overt discriminatory practices in our country’s voting history, there are some saying the Voting Rights Act’s time has passed. In fact, on Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments from Shelby County, Ala., that a key provision of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional and should be struck down. These arguments are misguided. The Voting Rights Act remains a vital piece of our national moral commitment never to permit racial discrimination in elections again.
The 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution was the third in a triad of amendments crafted to protect the rights of recently emancipated African Americans. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to people who were once enslaved, regardless of race. The 15th Amendment, which was passed by Congress February 26, 1869 and ratified February 3, 1870, reads:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude —
The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
It took nearly a century of blood, terror, and tears, but in 1965 President Lyndon B Johnson and the 89th U.S. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965; legislation to enforce the 15th Amendment. Finally.
One year more than a decade later, in 1976, I walked hand-in-hand with my mother trudging up and down city blocks lined with row houses in our West Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia. Each time we knocked and a neighbor came to the door, my mom, who served as the judge of elections for our neighborhood, asked: “Are you registered to vote?” If they weren’t, out came the clipboard.
I didn’t understand the legacy we were a part of that day, but with each sweep of the clipboard we were brandishing a non-violent weapon in the long fight of our ancestors to be and stay free. For 100 years — that’s five generations — they faced down the terror of burning crosses, threats to life and livelihood, and the elaborate labyrinth of Jim Crow voting laws — all set up to suppress their votes, all set up to crush their ability to exercise dominion.
So, when the Supreme Court announced recently that one of the cases it would take up in this session was a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the hairs rose on the back of my neck.
Fraud is a strong word. Webster's defines fraud as deceit and trickery, and an "intentional perversion of truth in order to induce another person to part with something of value or to surrender a legal right." Fraud is a serious matter.
The word "fraud" is on billboards around Ohio. I started noticing this a few weeks ago, when I was driving through a working class African American community in Cleveland and noticed a billboard that read: "Voter Fraud is a Felony: 3 1/2 years & $10,000 fine."
The red-and-black sign is accented by a large gavel in the lower right hand corner. A few days later, I noticed a similar billboard in Dayton, and late last week saw two such billboards near my home in urban Cincinnati. In an election season that has seen more jockeying around voter fraud and voter suppression than any in my memory, these billboards caught my eye.
Voter fraud sure sounds horrible, and based on these billboards in Ohio, one would imagine that it is an epidemic. After all, one of the hallmarks of American democracy is our fair and free elections.
But the billboards quickly created dissonance for me based on a recent meeting I and other pastors from Ohio Prophetic Voices enjoyed with Ohio Secretary of State John Husted. During the meeting, Husted told us that voter fraud is extremely rare and almost nonexistent. Statistics back up Husted's contention.
A Commonwealth judge this morning blocked a Pennsylvania law requiring a photo ID to vote from being enforced in the upcoming election. The law was one of the most stringent in the country and has sparked a divisive political debate. AP reports:
“A judge on Tuesday blocked Pennsylvania's divisive voter identification requirement from going into effect before Election Day, delivering a hard-fought victory to Democrats who said it was a ploy to defeat President Barack Obama and other opponents who said it would prevent the elderly and minorities from voting.
“The decision by Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson on the law requiring each voter to show a valid photo ID could be appealed to the state Supreme Court.”
Monday marked the 93rd anniversary of the congressional passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution on June 4, 1919.
After 71 years of movement forward and pushes back, the proposed Amendment to guarantee every woman in the United States the right to vote prevailed in the Senate. But it still had 36 more hurdles to jump before ratification; 36 of the then 48 states had to pass the Amendment in their state legislatures. On August 18, 1920 Tennessee became the 36th state to pass the Amendment and on that day women’s suffrage became the law of the land.
Florida missed that boat. The sunshine state had never voted on the 19th Amendment before it was ratified. A year later, the Florida state legislature passed its own law guaranteeing the vote to all citizens, but Florida’s legislature didn’t actually ratify the 19th Amendment until it took a symbolic vote in 1969.
As a woman I am grateful for the fact that in 1969 someone thought it might be a good idea to at least symbolically say, “Yeah, man, we’re cool with the ladies voting. We can groove with that.” But the current news about Florida’s voter purge has me wondering what happened in the 43 years between Florida’s symbolic thumbs up for suffrage and today’s current voter suppression?
The answer: The year 2000 happened.
This anniversary may have passed you by, but on this day in 1919, The US Senate passed the 19th Amendment. Almost seventeen months after being introduced by the House of Representatives, women were given the right to vote.
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
And after the 15th and19th amendment passed, voting rights are signed, sealed, delivered, right?
On Ash Wednesday, Catholics and many others will walk around with ashen crosses (or, by the end of the day, what look like indeterminate smudges) on our foreheads. Those ashes are strong symbols of core principles of the Catholic faith — symbols of repentance, identity, reconciliation, and renewal of baptism in the faith.
As a voting rights lawyer who is about as passionate about my work as I am about my faith, I can’t help but see parallels between the moral guidance I am given by my faith, and the policy choices that confront us in the secular world. These principles are reflected in the way we worship – and also in the actions we take in the secular world. This has led me and others to the conclusion that the 4 million Americans who lost their voting rights while incarcerated, and now live in our communities, deserve the chance to vote again upon release. It is both the just and the moral thing to do.
As we approach Ash Wednesday during this Holy Season, I encourage all Christians, guided by their core beliefs, to consider this idea.
Now we are at Valentine’s Day a year later. For many months last spring, a solitary red heart balloon floated just under the dome of the Capitol. It became a gentle symbol of this powerful people’s uprising.
The red heart balloon can serve as a reminder of how God’s Spirit blows whichever way it will, but that God’s Spirit is a spirit of justice and of compassion. As Bishop Burnside said, voices of faith need both a vocabulary of love and a vocabulary of justice as we move into the highly-charged months ahead.
Just how free are we?
Freedom is a word often used by politicians, economists and others in positions of power/authority as a byword for happiness. The more freedom we have, the happier we are. Whether this is actually the case, freedom is something that oftentimes may not be particularly tangible.
Freedom House attempts to help us understand what freedom actually looks like in its annual publication, Freedom In The World, with the 2012 edition published today. And their focus? The Arab Uprisings and the impact they have had, and continue to have, on the world.
From the top-line data that Freedom House has collected, the news isn’t good. Despite seeing “the most significant challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism” during the past year, only 12 countries actually recorded an overall improvement in their freedoms, in comparison to 26 countries that saw their freedoms lessened.
I am one of those who still prefer ink on paper to pixels on a screen. But no matter how you get your news, the passing of a giant is worth noting. Tom Wicker, reporter and columnist for The New York Times for 30 years, died on Saturday. The Times described him as “one of postwar America’s most distinguished journalists.”
Wicker was a meticulous reporter and a passionate advocate, so much so that he was sometimes criticized for overstepping the bounds of objectivity. But when faced with the major events he wrote on, how could he not be?
Sojourners has always tried to understand and advocate for "biblical politics." But what does that mean now, especially as we approach another major election?
I was talking the other day to a Christian leader who has given his life to working with the poor. His approach is very grassroots -- he lives in a poor, virtually all-minority community and provides basic services for low-income people. He said, "If you work with and for the poor, you inevitably run into injustice." In other words, poverty isn't caused by accident. There are unjust systems and structures that create and perpetuate poverty and human suffering. And service alone is never enough; working to change both the attitudes and institutional arrangements that cause poverty is required.
Picture this: Hundreds of thousands of women, men, and children plod across barren cracked earth. Dead cows and human corpses litter the roads, revealing to us evidence of two things: 1) the hottest summer on record in Somalia, which caused the worst drought and famine in 60 years; and 2) twenty years of a truly failed Somali government swallowed up in cycles of violence.
Picture this: Posturing politicians claim to stand up for the rights of Americans, even as they hijack the proverbial steering wheel of America. They hold a proverbial gun to the heads of every American, and say outright that they'd have no problem driving us all off a proverbial cliff if millionaires and billionaires don't remain protected from raised taxes, and if we don't cut more programs that protect working and poor people.