voting rights

What SCOTUS Could Learn From Paula Deen

Paula Deen, kai hecker /

Paula Deen, kai hecker /

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act that was enacted in 1965 to root out racial discrimination in voting. The specific section of the Act that was stricken — Section 4 — set forth a formula for determining which jurisdictions need federal clearance before making even minor changes to voting procedures. The impact of striking Section 4 is that the most important part of the Act, Section 5, is now rendered useless. Section 5 provides that states, cities, and counties with a history of racial discrimination in voting must “pre-clear” changes to voting procedures with the Department of Justice or a special court in Washington, D.C. Without the formula in Section 4 to determine which states, cities, and counties the preclearance should apply to, the preemptive protection provided by Section 5 no longer exists, and any future challenges to changes in voting procedure must happen after such changes are already in effect.

The majority of the Court felt that racial minorities do not continue to face discriminatory voting practices, and that the preclearance requirement was based on 40-year-old facts that had no logical bearing on present day. Chief Justice Roberts, Jr., wrote:

“Our country has changed. 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 practical application of Tuesday's decision is that states will be able to enact potentially discriminatory laws that previously had been blocked. This was made immediately apparent in Texas, which announced after the ruling that voter identification laws would go into effect immediately.

Watch the Vote: Supreme Court Effectively Kills Voting Rights Act

Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Demonstrator outside the Supreme Court on Monday, Brandon Hook / Sojourners

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.

SCOTUS: Key Section of Voting Rights Act Unconstitutional

 Supreme Court Building, Cameron Whitman /

Supreme Court Building, Cameron Whitman /

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.

Voting Rights Act is an Important Moral Statement

Supreme Court Building,  Brandon Bourdages /

Supreme Court Building, Brandon Bourdages /

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.

Watch the Vote: Is the Voting Rights Act Still Needed?

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Hazel Dukes (L), NAACP New York State Conference, announce 'Stand for Freedom' voting rights campaign. Mario Tama/Getty Images

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: 

Section 1.
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 —

Section 2.
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.

Ohio 'Voter Fraud' Billboards a 'Perversion of Truth'

Screenshot from video

Screenshot from video

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. 

Racial Politics

It is contrary to Christian values to use attacks on welfare to win white votes.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God’s Side, is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

BREAKING: Pa. Voter ID Law Blocked

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.”

Florida: You Cannot Take Our Vote

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.