Lawsuits are not enough: Restore the Voting Rights Act

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), this year simultaneously marks a critical moment for voting rights in the here and now. Despite the courageous efforts of trailblazers who marched, organized and even died for the ballot access made possible under the VRA, today we are witnessing the greatest assault on the right to vote since the law’s passage 50 years ago.  

This is partly because the Supreme Court gutted the core of the Act in their 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling. In this catastrophic decision, the Court struck down the formula for Section 5 – a vital provision that required federal pre-approval of voting changes in states with a history of voter discrimination. This effectively stopped discriminatory laws, and disenfranchisement, before they could go into effect. The Supreme Court ruled, however, that these covered states no longer required monitoring. In the two years since losing the protections of Section 5, we’ve seen this couldn’t be further from the truth. That’s why it is critical – now, more than ever – that Congress acts to restore Section 5.  

Almost instantly following the Shelby ruling, right-wing legislatures seized the moment to implement some of the most blatant voter suppression tactics since the days of poll taxes and literacy tests. These schemes included severely restricting the type of ID a voter may use, cutting early voting periods and targeting voters to purge from the voting rolls. North Carolina lawmakers hit an all-time low by passing the worst voter suppression law in the nation – a laundry list of restrictions including a narrow photo ID requirement and cutting early voting by a week, as well as the complete elimination of same-day registration, the pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-old and out-of-precinct provisional voting.

Without federal preclearance over states with voting discrimination legacies, civil rights attorneys and communities of color are now relying more heavily on another legal tool to stave off voter suppression – Section 2. While this VRA provision bans voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race, it is enforced only through lawsuits. The burden is now on civil rights attorneys and communities of color to take states to court and prove that their voting laws are harmful, through litigation that requires vast amounts of resources, time and constant vigilance as more restrictions roll out nationwide.

Despite the hurdles, these cases can be won. The burden of proof may be high, but the evidence is clear. As my colleagues and I – representing the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP – prepare for trial this month in our case against North Carolina’s egregious voting law, we are certain the evidence will expose the measure’s discriminatory intent. We are confident its burdensome impact will come alive in the testimonies of voters, to the college students whose state university IDs are no longer eligible for voting, to the voters who were turned away in 2014 because they were in the wrong precinct.

But our confidence should not be taken as proof that the VRA is fine in its current form. Any victory under a weakened VRA does not indicate all is well without preclearance. In fact, Section 2 victories are the clearest evidence of our need for robust preclearance requirements. They show that discriminatory voting practices remain in our modern day and should be stopped from the outset.  

Voting is the one time when we are all equal – whether you’re young or old, rich or poor, black, white, latino or Asian. When we vote, we all have the same say, and Section 5 ensured that our nation lived up to that promise. That’s why it is crucial that Congress move to pass the Senate bill recently introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) to restore this pillar of the Voting Rights Act. If signed into law, the bill would restore Section 5 preclearance protections, using a formula that covers 13 states with a history of discrimination – including North Carolina. 

In North Carolina and beyond, civil rights lawyers will continue fighting hard to protect the right to vote, but we simply shouldn’t have to fight this hard. Voters’ rights should never be put in jeopardy. Lawyers should not be tasked with reclaiming the most fundamental of rights for eligible Americans. As Section 2 cases continue to move throughout the federal courts, each reveals the necessity for Congress to act swiftly to restore federal preclearance. Only with that level of protection will our elections be truly free, fair and accessible for all.

Hair is an attorney for and co-director of the Advancement Project.

This article originally appeared at TheHill.com.