By Marc H. Morial
“No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.”
The Supreme Court of the United States, Wesberry v. Sanders, 1964
In 2013, the Supreme Court stripped the Voting Rights Act of its power to stop states from creating and enforcing laws that would prevent eligible voters from exercising their constitutional right to vote. Under the dark shadow of the newly crippled law, our nation celebrated the 50th year anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 2015. In 2016, our nation will observe its first presidential election since the court effectively paved the way for states to usher in new, legal obstacles to the polls that would largely affect low-income people, the elderly, people with disabilities, students and communities of color.
Preclearance – which laid at the very heart of the VRA – required states with a history of discriminatory, race-based voter suppression to have any amendments in their voting laws “precleared” by the Justice Department. The Supreme Court, in all its wisdom, decided the preclearance provision was the stuff of a bygone era of racial injustice in American history. The court could not have been more flawed in its thinking. Since then, states have been hard at work introducing and passing countless laws that do what the VRA was created to stop: the calculated denial of the vote to targeted classes of Americans.
In our first election since Barack Obama became the first African-American to be elected this nation’s president, 17 new states –from Texas to Rhode Island – will have new voting restrictions in place. While it is true that the days of poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses exist in the pages of our history books. The old strategy of voter suppression is not sitting somewhere collecting dust on a shelf. Voter suppression is alive and well and dressed in a new suit of modern tactics, with states passing laws strict voter ID laws, cutting back on early voting, denying ex-felons the right to vote and even closing polling places in communities of color.
In all, 22 states have new restrictive voting requirements in effect since the 2010 midterm election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. That sobering number represents nearly half our nation’s states. It also represents hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of eligible voters being denied their protected right to a vote. We should not accept this current state of affairs as the last word on voting rights in our democracy.
Marc H. Morial is the CEO of the National Urban League.