POLS: RESTORE THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT
Say Supreme Court Decision Disenfranchises Many
Elected officials and voting rights advocates came together last Friday, Aug. 9, in Kew Gardens to call for the restoration of key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the U.S. Supreme Court found unconstitutional in June.
From the steps of Queens Borough Hall, Friday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Queens Borough President Helen Marshall called on congress to pass bipartisan legislation to restore Section 4 of the Act.
The section determined which states and local jurisdictions would have to seek federal pre-approval from the Department of Justice (DOJ) before changing their voting laws. The affected jurisdictions— which included Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx—were areas identified as places that historically enacted discriminatory voting laws when the Act was originally passed.
The court found, in June, that requiring pre-approval from some states and municipalities based on 40-year-old data conflicted with the principles of federalism and did not constitute an “equal sovereignty of the states.”
After the Supreme Court’s ruling, those jurisdictions are no longer subject to federal oversight when introducing or amending voting legislation, allowing them to introduce voter ID laws, influence redistricting, or create literacy requirements for voting that some charge limits access to polls.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling was a significant setback,” Gillibrand said, Aug. 9. “The Voting Rights Act has been a cornerstone in ensuring the rights won in the Civil Rights movement continue to stand strong today. Congress must come together and act quickly to restore legal protections for voters throughout New York City and across the nation.”
The senator penned a letter to leaders in both the House of Representatives and the Senate requesting the two houses pass bipartisan legisby lation that addresses the court’s concerns while introducing protections for residents in historically discriminatory states.
“Some lawmakers have already moved to reinstate voting changes that have previously been found to have violated the Voting Rights Act,” Gillibrand wrote.
On the day that the Supreme Court handed down its ruling on Section 4, Texas’ Attorney General declared a strict voter ID law the DOJ previously blocked would “take effect immediately.”
In North Carolina, the state legislature moved to end same-day voter registration and eliminate a voter-registration program for high schoolers once it no longer had to answer to the DOJ.
“It is very important that Congress move swiftly to adopt a revision to the Voting Rights Act that will protect voters from discrimination while passing Supreme Court muster,” Marshall said during the event.
For states-rights proponents in legislature, there is little incentive to pass a replacement version of Section 4, and pundits have charged that the Republican-led House will drag its feet on passing a replacement while conservative-leaning states like Texas, North Carolina and Florida impose stricter voting laws that could disenfranchise their opposition in those states.
“With the 2014 midterm elections approaching, Congress must act quickly to ensure that no voters are disenfranchised,” Marshall said.
Voter Empowerment Act
Gillibrand also called on Congress to pass legislation she has introduced that would improve voter protections.
Her so-called Voter Empowerment Act seeks to ensure equal accesss to polls while prohibiting voter fraud, according to a statement from the senator.
Gillibrand’s bill calls for online and same-day registration, more robust voter-registration drives at universities that receive federal dollars, and additional resources at polling sites for disabled persons.
The legislation also seeks to prevent voter suppression through coercion, poor pollster training, or voter caging, it was noted.
According to Gillibrand’s office, the legislation seeks to protect accountability by creating a national voter hotline for reporting issues, setting standards for voting machines and reauthorizing the election Assistance Commission—a national resource for information about election administration.