As Congressman John Lewis described it, in a speech on the House floor this summer, the voting rights that he worked throughout his life – and nearly gave his life – to ensure are, “under attack… [by] a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, [and] minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process.” Not only was he referring to the all-too-common deceptive practices we’ve been fighting for years. He was echoing more recent concerns about some of the state-level voting law changes we’ve seen this legislative season.
Since January, more than a dozen states have advanced new voting measures. Some of these new laws are currently under review by the Justice Department, based on our obligations under the Voting Rights Act. Texas and South Carolina, for example, have enacted laws establishing new photo identification requirements that we’re reviewing. We’re also examining a number of changes that Florida has made to its electoral process, including changes to the procedures governing third-party voter registration organizations, as well as changes to early voting procedures, including the number of days in the early voting period.
He also addressed the current fights over redistricting maps.
Despite the long history of support for Section 5, this keystone of our voting rights laws is now being challenged five years after its reauthorization as unconstitutional in no fewer than five lawsuits. Each of these lawsuits claims that we’ve attained a new era of electoral equality, that America in 2011 has moved beyond the challenges of 1965, and that Section 5 is no longer necessary.
I wish this were the case. The reality is that – in jurisdictions across the country – both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common. And we don’t have to look far to see recent proof.
For example, in October, the Justice Department objected to a redistricting plan in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, where the map-drawer began the process by meeting exclusively with white officeholders – and never consulted black officeholders. The result was a map that diminished the electoral opportunity of African Americans. After the Justice Department objected, the Parish enacted a new, non-discriminatory map.
Finally, he suggested three ways to protect voting rights. First, reintroduction of 2009 legislation which would increase civil penalties for fraudulent election practices such as robocalls directing callers to vote on the wrong day, or mailings to a group of voters misinforming them of their mail-in ballot deadlines. Second, neutrality in redistricting, and third, automatic voter registration. I liked his call to action:
So speak out. Raise awareness about what’s at stake. Call on our political parties to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success and, instead, encourage and work with the parties to achieve this success by appealing to more voters. And urge policymakers at every level to reevaluate our election systems – and to reform them in ways that encourage, not limit, participation.
Today, we cannot – and must not – take the right to vote for granted. Nor can we shirk the sacred responsibility that falls upon our shoulders.
The full text of his speech is here.