September 1, 2010
Most of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) are permanent, but several key provisions must be reauthorized by Congress based upon evidence of continuing need. In 1982, the ACLU prepared for battle as the Reagan Administration, exhibiting hostility toward the VRA, sought to restrict reauthorization of certain important provisions. The ACLU's Laughlin McDonald, director of the Voting Rights Project since 1972, testified at both Senate and House hearings, offering a devastating and detailed analysis of vote dilution in the South and making an impassioned case for reauthorization. In response, Congress not only reauthorized the Act but strengthened provisions of the law that had been weakened by recent Court rulings. A 1982 amendment to the law also established that people who are blind, disabled, or illiterate could be assisted in voting by almost anyone of their choice (later on, in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act further codified these rights).
On signing the 1982 extension of the Act, which passed the House by a vote of 389 to 24 and the Senate by a vote of 95-9, President Reagan called the right to vote the 'crown jewel of American liberties.'
The next big battle came 25 years later, in 2005-06. Anticipating once again arguments that voting discrimination was no longer in evidence, the ACLU in 2006 issued two major reports: one that provided critical documentation of ongoing voting discrimination, and the other detailing the importance of the VRA in eliminating discrimination and granting minority access to the ballot box. The first report, a staggering 800-plus pages in length, documented the Voting Rights Project's involvement in nearly 300 cases brought in 31 states since 1982, the date of the last reauthorization. Laughlin McDonald again testified before both houses of Congress in support of the reauthorization. The second report, issued by the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office, provided policy analysis and recommendations for reauthorization of three crucial sections of the VRA. The ACLU's lobbying staff in Washington made VRA reauthorization a top priority, not only issuing reports and providing Congressional testimony, but also sending out action alerts that generated more than 100,000 emails and phone calls to Congress, and airing a documentary on the VRA on Court TV. The massive effort paid off: Congress rejected attempts to dilute the original intent of the VRA and passed a 'clean' reauthorization bill, which renewed key provisions that would otherwise have expired in 2007, and redressed two Supreme Court decisions that had weakened the special preclearance provisions.