Some Things to Know About the Voting Rights Act

Given its recent 50th anniversary, much has been said of and written about the Voting Rights Act.

In case you weren’t familiar with its history, and the newest political moves to restore some provisions of the act, we wanted to share a valuable report from the Brennan Center that will help fill you in.

Here’s some background, courtesy of the good-government non-profit:

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to ensure state and local governments do not pass laws or policies that deny American citizens the equal right to vote based on race. As the leading democracy of the world, the U.S. should work to keep voting free, fair, and accessible. That’s why the Voting Rights Act is so important. It makes sure every citizen, regardless of their race, has an equal opportunity to have a say and participate in our great democracy.

On June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, removing a critical tool to combat racial discrimination in voting. Under Section 5 of the landmark civil rights law, jurisdictions with a history of discrimination must seek pre-approval of changes in voting rules that could affect minorities. This process, known as “preclearance,” blocks discrimination before it occurs. In Shelby County v. Holder, the Court invalidated Section 4 — which determines the states and localities covered by Section 5 — arguing that current conditions require a new coverage formula.

And there’s been movement to strengthen the VRA. Here’s a primer on what’s new legislatively:

On January 16, 2014, Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and others, introduced a bill to strengthen the Voting Rights Act. The bill would, among other changes:

  • Require jurisdictions with a recent record of repeated Voting Rights Act violations to pre-clear election law changes.
  • Expand the current “bail-in” procedures, which allow courts to subject jurisdictions to preclearance.
  • Create a uniform requirement to inform voters of certain pending voting changes.
  • Enhance the ability of lawyers to halt discriminatory election measures before they can harm citizens.
  • Allow federal observers to monitor elections to ensure compliance with laws protecting the rights of Americans who speak limited English.

The bill was reintroduced in the House in February 2015. In June 2015, Senate and House leaders introduced another bill to restore core Voting Rights Act protections.

Read more background here.

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