In 1960, my grandfather Fred Gray argued Gomillion v. Lightfoot, a Supreme Court case challenging a local act passed in the state legislature that reconfigured the city limits of Tuskegee, Alabama. Without this lawsuit, the city limits would have gone from a square to a figure with 28 sides, which purposely excluded hundreds of African-American voters. The Supreme Court rendered a unanimous decision ruling that the Alabama law violated the 15th Amendment. This case laid the foundation for the Voting Rights Act, which was enacted in 1965 to prohibit racial discrimination in voting.
Sadly, similar voter suppression tactics are still happening today, but members of Congress are taking action now to end the practice before the 2018 midterm elections.
This morning, I had the honor of standing with Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) as they announced the reintroduction of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which will restore the full force of the Voting Rights Act to prohibit racial discrimination in voting by reinstating protections against voter suppression that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013. In Shelby v. Holder, a divided Supreme Court threw out the formula that determined which states would be required to get clearance from the Justice Department before changing voting laws because they had a history of racial discrimination. The court swept aside a 15,000-page congressional record showing discrimination still exists and declared that the coverage formula was out of date.
Without the formula, the preclearance provision is essentially rendered useless. Passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act will restore Justice Department oversight to jurisdictions that have a history of voter suppression and address current racial discrimination by modernizing the coverage formula and adding additional protections to address discrimination in the 21st century.
After the Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder, 17 states enacted restrictive voting laws leading up to the 2016 presidential election. These states represented 189 votes in the Electoral College and contained over 110 million people. The burden of the new restrictions fell disproportionately on voters of color.
Alabama, for example, passed a law requiring specific forms of government-issued identification to vote. And soon after, Alabama closed or significantly reduced the days of operation for31 out of 67 of its Department of Motor Vehicle locations, despite being the most convenient way to obtain the mandatory ID. At the time, 250,000 registered voters in Alabama did not have a government-accepted ID to vote. To add insult to injury, all of the 31 counties affected were those whose population was made up of at least 75 percent African-Americans.
The problem of voter suppression is not unique to Alabama. It’s happening all across our country. The ACLU has been active in combatting numerous new laws in a variety of states. These laws would require photo ID, delete people from the rolls, and eliminate access to early voting and same-day registration.
The reasoning behind states passage of new stricter voting laws has been chalked up to combatting alleged voter fraud. But despite President Trump’s claim that 3 million to 5 million ineligible voters voted in the 2016 presidential election, there has been no data to back up these claims. Nevertheless, President Trump has even established the “Presidential Commission on Election Integrity,” which is vice-chaired by Kris Kobach. Kobach has a long history of pushing voter suppression in his home state of Kansas and nationwide. The ACLU has successfully sued Kobach on numerous occasions on voter suppression policies.
The Trump administration should not waste time and resources on issues like voting fraud that don’t exist. We should instead encourage Congress to focus on preserving our democracy and outlawing voter discrimination. Enacting the Voting Rights Advancement Act is crucial to achieve this and show we truly believe that every eligible voter should cast a ballot for the representative of their choosing.
CORRECTION: The original post stated that Kris Kobach's home state is Kentucky. That's incorrect. It's Kansas. We regret the error.