Eric Holder is Absolutely Correct: The Right to Vote is Under Siege

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At the Democratic Convention on Tuesday night, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder – the first African American in history to hold that position – made a bold, harrowing statement about the state of voting rights in the United States. Everything he said was true.

“Finally, at a time when the right to vote is under siege – when Republicans brazenly assault the most fundamental right of our democracy – passing laws designed to stop people from voting, while closing locations in minority neighborhoods where people get the documents they need to vote – we need a president sensitive to these echoes of Jim Crow. We need a president who holds the right to vote as sacred and stands firm against any kind of modern-day poll tax.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, states and jurisdictions no longer under federal oversight pushed through laws that have increased barriers to voting – barriers that disproportionately impact people of color, students, low-income people, and language minorities. Using Holder’s words, here’s a breakdown of recent voting discrimination in those formerly covered states:

  1. The right to vote is under siege.

Virginia. In 2012, Virginia passed a voter ID law that was approved by the Department of Justice (DOJ). But, after Shelby, the state legislature made the law significantly stricter, and it was implemented without additional DOJ review. Although about 200,000 voters lack a driver’s license in the state, a federal judge upheld the law in May.

  1. Republicans are brazenly assaulting the most fundamental right of our democracy.

North Carolina. Just weeks after the Shelby decision, North Carolina passed a monster voter suppression law that cut early voting by a week, eliminated same-day registration, stopped the counting of out-of-precinct ballots, required photo voter ID, and ended pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds. A federal judge upheld the law in April, and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to rule on it soon.

  1. Laws are being passed to stop people from voting.

South Carolina. DOJ blocked a voter ID law in South Carolina in 2012, but approved it after the state agreed that voters could sign an affidavit if they lacked an ID – an important improvement given 178,000 registered voters lack a DMV-issued ID. For this year’s primary, however, officials in the state have confused voters about what’s really required.

  1. Places to get the documents needed to vote have threatened to close in minority neighborhoods.

Alabama. Last fall, Alabama proposed closing DMV offices in every single county in which African Americans make up more than 75 percent of registered voters, with no similar proposal for DMV offices in other counties. Following backlash and legal threats, Governor Robert Bentley said he would re-open the offices – but just for one day a month. NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a lawsuit against the state, and the U.S. Department of Transportation launched an investigation.

  1. Modern-day poll taxes are real.

Texas. In October 2014, District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, in a decision striking down the state’s restrictive voter ID law, wrote that the Texas law, implemented immediately after Shelby, “constitutes an unconstitutional poll tax.” Four federal courts have now ruled that the state’s law violates the VRA because it discriminates against Black and Latino voters, although Ramos’s ruling that it was intentionally discriminatory is still under consideration after a ruling by the 5th Circuit Court last week.

And there are plenty of other examples. Arizona, Florida, and Georgia – all competitive states in this year’s election – are no longer covered by Section 5 of the VRA. As a report we recently released notes, voter suppression unleashed in these states and others after the Shelby decision could determine the 2016 election. Holder’s statement Tuesday night may have sounded ominous, but that’s because voting discrimination – still persistent more than 50 years after the VRA – is precisely that.

Keith Ellison Just Called Out Speaker Ryan for Blocking a VRA Restoration

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At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia on Monday night, Rep. Keith Ellison, D. Minn., slammed Speaker Paul Ryan, R. Wisc., for his inaction on voting rights.

“They don’t want us to vote,” Ellison said. “They want to push voter ID laws that block Black and Latino voters. Paul Ryan won’t even allow a vote to restore the Voting Rights Act.”

Here’s what Ellison is referring to:

Since the U.S. Supreme Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in June 2013, Republican lawmakers in states no longer covered by the VRA have passed strict voter ID laws that disproportionately burden minority voters. Within minutes of the Supreme Court’s decision, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott tweeted that the state’s strict voter ID law should go into effect immediately. The following day, Alabama said it would finally start enforcing the photo ID law it had passed two years earlier. And weeks later, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a monster voter suppression law (H.B. 589) that included a voter ID provision.

Just last week, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit became the fourth federal court to say that Texas’ law violates the VRA because it discriminates against Black and Latino voters. A day before the 5th Circuit’s decision, a federal court struck down Wisconsin’s voter ID law as well. Speaker Ryan, who represents that state’s 1st congressional district, has been silent.

More than five months ago, Ryan told the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) that he supports a bipartisan bill to restore the VRA, but that he can’t do anything about it. The bill was introduced by fellow Wisconsin Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner, who championed the VRA’s last reauthorization signed into law 10 years ago this week.

Ryan’s refusal to act didn’t sit well with civil rights and voting rights advocates.

“Speaker Ryan appears unwilling to back his words with the necessary action. He has instead sloughed that responsibility onto House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, who stands in the way of civil rights and voting rights legislation,” noted Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Chairman Goodlatte has refused to heed calls from his constituents, from the civil rights community, and from the courts that voting discrimination has flourished without the full protections of the VRA. Even as courts have found that his home state of Virginia gerrymandered districts to deny Black voting power, Chairman Goodlatte refuses to even hold a hearing on a VRA restoration.”

Ellison, a member of the CBC, revived this conversation on Monday night. While Congress is now on recess for nearly two months, Republican leadership continues to do nothing to restore the VRA or advance voting rights in any meaningful way. And as we approach the first presidential election in 50 years without the VRA’s full protections, action is essential.

Fifth Circuit Rules Texas Voter ID Law Violates Voting Rights Act

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on Wednesday ruled (9-6) that Texas’ strict voter ID law violates the Voting Rights Act (VRA) because it discriminates against Black and Hispanic voters. The court also asked a lower court to find a remedy to prevent 600,000 Texans who lack a required form of ID from being disenfranchised in November.

The law, S.B. 14, was initially blocked under a provision of the VRA that the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated in its June 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision. But immediately after the Shelby decision, Texas – now freed from federal oversight –rushed to implement the law.

“Today’s ruling is a hard and tenaciously fought victory that required years of sacrifice and investment from voters, civil rights litigators, and community organizations. These voters couldn’t cast ballots in 2014 and won’t ever be able get that election back. But thanks to all of the hard work to leverage what remains of the Voting Rights Act, they will have that chance in 2016,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference. “The scope of this problem is massive. Shelby ushered in a resurgence of voter discrimination and now politicians across the country have been choosing their voters instead of having voters choose them.”

S.B. 14 was struck down two previous times – once by a Texas district court and later by a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court.

In the district court’s decision, Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos wrote that the law “creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.”

Despite these findings, the Republican Party’s 2016 platform, adopted this week in Cleveland, strongly opposes litigation against states over ID laws like this one. The platform also supports voter ID laws and fails to mention efforts to restore the VRA – even though S.B. 14, now found to be discriminatory by four federal courts, was implemented as a direct result of Shelby.

Like the party’s platform, Republican leadership in Congress has also ignored bills to restore the VRA.

“Congress currently has two bipartisan VRA restoration bills under consideration in committees that have languished without action,” Henderson said. “And as we approach the first presidential election in 50 years without a fully functioning VRA, the stakes have never been higher. Congress must restore the VRA.”

If a lower court finds that Texas implemented the law with a discriminatory intent, as Judge Ramos did in her October 2014 opinion, Texas could be bailed back in to preclearance under the VRA.

How Activists are Mobilizing the #DisabilityVote this Week

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This week (July 11-15) is the inaugural National Disability Voter Registration Week, an effort coordinated by the REV UP campaign (which stands for Register! Educate! Vote! Use your Power!). Since one in five Americans has a disability – a community that spans across all genders, races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, and gender identities – this week is relevant for everyone. As the campaign explains:

“There are nearly 30 million people with disabilities eligible to vote when registered. This number does not even include ‘the ripple effect’ of family, friends, and service professionals who will vote in-line with disability interests. During National Disability Voter Registration Week, REV UP Campaigns around the country will make a concerted effort to get more people with disabilities registered to vote, educate voters about issues and candidates, promote turnout of voters with disabilities across the country, engage candidates and the media on disability issues, and protect eligible voters’ right to participate in elections.”

The campaign’s website has at least 10 ways to get involved and – while it may be too late to organize a rally or host a workshop – there are still ways to participate. Here are three:

  1. Get involved on social media. Provide your followers with information about registering to vote and ask them to commit to voting this November. Click here to download sample social media messages to share throughout the week.
  1. Share these flyers (pdf and png) – online and in person – to get the word out about National Disability Voter Registration Week.
  1. Send out a press release to let your community know that you’re participating in the week and explain why it’s important. Click here to download a sample release.

Protecting the right to vote for people with disabilities has been part of federal law for quite some time – it just hasn’t always received as much attention. According to the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN):

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 and the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA) are commonly associated with discrimination based on race/ethnicity and language proficiency, the voter demographic for which the legislation was primarily intended. Yet, both significant pieces of voting rights legislation include provisions specific to people with disabilities:

Most notably, it is actually Section 208 of the original Voting Rights Act that states “any voter who requires assistance to vote by reason of blindness, disability, or inability to read or write may be given assistance by a person of the voter’s choice, other than the voter’s employer or agent of that employer or officer or agent of the voter’s union.”

The Voting Rights Advancement Act, if passed, will also require that jurisdictions publicly notice all changes to voting laws that happen within 180 days before an election and that notice be “in a format that is…accessible to voters with disabilities, including voters who have low vision or are blind.”

That proposed legislation is currently stalled in Congress because, more than a year after its introduction, the Republican chairs of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees refuse to hold hearings.

For more about the campaign and National Disability Voter Registration Week, click here. And for more REV UP images and toolkits, click here.

The Voting Rights Act was Eviscerated Three Years Ago

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Here’s what’s happened since — and how it could impact this year’s election.

Three years ago today,  the U.S. Supreme Court in its Shelby County v. Holder decision gutted the Voting Rights Act (VRA), a civil rights law signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 to ban racial discrimination in voting. Within minutes of that decision, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott tweeted that the state’s strict voter ID law should go into effect immediately. The following day, Alabama said it would finally start enforcing the photo ID law it had passed two years earlier. And weeks later, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a monster voter suppression law (H.B. 589) that is still today being challenged in court — and for good reason. North Carolina voters like Dale Hicks, featured in the video below, couldn’t vote in 2014 because of H.B. 589.

Hicks isn’t alone. Voters across the country are facing new voting restrictions passed in the wake of Shelby. In their recent report, “Democracy Diminished: State and Local Threats to Voting Post-Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder,” NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) details both proposed and implemented state, county, and local voting changes in the last three years in jurisdictions formerly covered by the VRA. Beginning in June 2014, for example, Virginia had implemented a photo ID law even though nearly 200,000 voters in the state lacked a driver’s license. This list of voting changes goes on. And on.

We’ve already seen some of these changes in action because — in primary after primary this year — jurisdictions once covered by the VRA have made it harder for people to vote. Arizona’s largest county — with the highest number of minority voters — closed 60 percent of its polling places. In Brooklyn, entire buildings and blocks were de-registered from voting in a purge of 126,000 voters from the rolls. And in North Carolina and Texas, the strict ID laws implemented immediately after Shelby are preventing hundreds of thousands of voters from casting a ballot.

Five of the states previously covered by the VRA (Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas) are also competitive in this year’s general election — in the presidential race, but also some senatorial and gubernatorial races. In a new report, “Warning Signs: The Potential Impact of Shelby County v. Holder on the 2016 General Election,” The Leadership Conference Education Fund found that the voter suppression in these states unleashed by Shelby could impact this year’s election. Now that they’re no longer subject to oversight or accountability, each state has enacted its own set of voting laws that harm voters of color. Unfortunately, leaders in Congress have yet to show any interest in working to solve the problem.

One bill to help restore the VRA was introduced in January 2014. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D. Vt., and Rep. Terri Sewell, D. Ala., introduced a second legislative fix for Shelby in June 2015. Republican leadership in Congress has refused to take action on either. Unless Congress acts now, voters in 2016 will face the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the VRA.

The time is now to #RestoreTheVRA.

Voting Rights Advocates Sound Alarm for 2016 Election on Shelby County v. Holder Anniversary

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New Report Highlights Voter Suppression in Competitive 2016 Election States

WASHINGTON – Today, voting rights advocates and voters hosted a press call to discuss the impact of the Shelby County v. Holder decision on the 2016 presidential election and to kick off a week of action to restore the Voting Rights Act in advance of the third anniversary of Shelby, which falls on June 25.

Click here to listen to an MP3 of the call.

On the call, participants released a new report, Warning Signs, which profiles voter suppression activities in states that were once covered by Section 5 of the VRA and are host to competitive 2016 contests for 84 Electoral College votes, two Senate seats, and one governor’s seat. The report finds that, since Shelby, all five of these states – North Carolina, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Virginia – have engaged in deceptive and sophisticated practices to disenfranchise voters that will have an impact on the 2016 election. The report is a collaborative effort of The Leadership Conference Education Fund, and relies on recent reports and materials from the ACLU, the Advancement Project, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the NALEO Educational Fund.

Click here to download a PDF of the report.

The call also discussed a nationwide week of action to restore the VRA, endorsed by more than 140 organizations with activities in places like Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Virginia, Texas, and many more.

Below are key quotes from the call.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund

“There’s clearly a demand to restore the VRA. There’s also a great need. In our new report, we identified five states that have competitive contests for 84 Electoral College votes, two Senate seats, and one governor’s seat. And with the presidency and control of the Senate at stake, the temptation to shave points off of the participation rate of voters of color has proven too great to resist. Since Shelby, all five of these states – North Carolina, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Virginia – have engaged in deceptive and sophisticated efforts to disenfranchise voters that will have an impact on the 2016 election.”

Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which has played a key role in fighting voter suppression in North Carolina

“What we are seeing in North Carolina is that more people are being disenfranchised than the margin that decided our recent Governor’s election and other recent elections in our state. These voter suppression measures passed in the wake of Shelby – like ending same day registration, ending out-of-precinct voting, and others – are truly having an impact on our ability to vote. We hope that these measures will not be in place in November 2016.”

Marion Warren, Registrar of Voters for the City of Sparta in Hancock County, Georgia

“Actions taken by county officials have been completely detrimental to the minority population, and the only thing stopping them is the outcry from the public and the fact that we now have the Department of Justice looking into this. The situation in Hancock County is particularly bad – it seems it’s harder for a minority to vote now in the state of Georgia than it was in 1965.”

Monica Cooper, an Arizona voter disenfranchised during the 2016 primary and a plaintiff in a voting rights lawsuit against Arizona and Maricopa County

“On Election Day, I depended on Dial-a-Ride [a paratransit service] to get to and from the polling place, and was not able to vote because the lines were so long it took over two hours to get inside the polling place. I am very angry that I was not able to cast my ballot and that I was left out on Election Day.”

Juliana Huerena, another plaintiff in a voting rights lawsuit against Arizona and Maricopa County

“I’ve been voting in Maricopa County for nearly 10 years and I’ve never seen lines like this before. The line wrapped around the building. It was important to me to wait and cast my ballot, but I saw many people get frustrated after waiting for hours and eventually leave without voting. In the end, I waited four and a half hours to cast my ballot.”

Whip Scalise Commemorated Bloody Sunday, but Took No Action to Restore the Voting Rights Act

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House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R. La., has been better known for associations with white supremacist groups and hostility to civil rights issues than as a champion for voting rights. Will his recent commemoration of Bloody Sunday signal a turn for the House’s third highest ranking official?

Scalise’s trip to Selma was striking because in recent years he’s found himself in hot water over a speech he once delivered to the European American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), a white supremacist, anti-Semitic, and neo-Nazi organization classified as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

After a sustained bout of public pressure and media scrutiny, Scalise issued a statement calling his attendance there a “mistake,” but his consistent record of hostility toward civil rights issues as a one-time Louisiana state legislator raised concerns among several civil rights leaders, as outlined in a letter from Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League.

“You voted against making Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a state holiday — one of just three state representatives to do so, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. And in 2004, two years after the EURO conference where you spoke, you were one of six to vote against the holiday,” Henderson and Morial wrote in January 2015. “You apparently took a similar position involving the naming of a U.S. Post Office for Louisiana civil rights icon, the Honorable Lionel Collins, a pioneering civil rights lawyer and the first African-American judge in Jefferson Parish, La.”

Scalise agreed to meet with the two civil rights leaders a month later, where they urged him to cosponsor a bill to restore the VRA, to ask House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte to hold a hearing on the bill, and to help arrange a meeting between them and House Republican leadership regarding the legislation. Scalise failed to act on any of their requests and on August 6, 2015 — the 50th anniversary of the VRA — Henderson and Morial wrote to Scalise for a third time to express their profound disappointment.

“Your past actions have cast you as part of the problem. We invited you to join our efforts to become part of the solution,” Henderson and Morial wrote. Scalise ultimately took no action. That’s why his participation in the Selma commemoration stood out to civil rights advocates in attendance, like Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Scalise’s presence was conspicuous because — even after calling his 2002 speech a mistake — he has failed for more than a year now to work with civil rights leaders and move voting rights forward.


While Scalise’s trip to Selma this year represents a welcome symbolic gesture, commemorating the events of 1965 is no replacement for legislating in 2016 to ensure equal access to the ballot box. As part of House leadership, Scalise has a responsibility to serve not only the constituents in his district, but also the broader national constituency.

Scalise should join House Speaker Paul Ryan in supporting a VRA restoration, and he should take the additional steps of actually cosponsoring a bill and calling on Goodlatte to hold a hearing on it. Before this year’s presidential election — the first in 50 years without the full protections of the VRA — there’s still time for him to redeem his reputation and take meaningful action.

Women’s History Month and the VRA: Honoring the Work of Hamer, Parks & King

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Nearly a decade ago in July 2006, Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) for 25 years, and it did so overwhelmingly — 390–33 in the House and 98–0 in the Senate. On the South Lawn of the White House, Republican President George W. Bush signed the extension into law on July 27.

“In four decades since the Voting Rights Act was first passed, we’ve made progress toward equality, yet the work for a more perfect union is never ending,” Bush said at the law’s signing. “We’ll continue to build on the legal equality won by the civil rights movement to help ensure that every person enjoys the opportunity that this great land of liberty offers.”

Since President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law on August 6, 1965, Bush was the fourth president to sign a VRA reauthorization — something only Republican presidents have done. And beyond its tremendous bipartisan support in 2006, the reauthorization was also significant for its title: The Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006.

“This legislation is named in honor of three heroes of American history who devoted their lives to the struggle of civil rights: Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King,” Bush said at the end of the ceremony. “And in honor of their memory and their contributions to the cause of freedom, I am proud to sign the Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006.”



Speaking on the House floor that month, now-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D. Calif., said it was “fitting” that the law was named for them. “These women were constant in their pursuit of voting rights,” Pelosi said. “Rosa Parks ignited the Montgomery bus boycott. Fannie Lou Hamer electrified the 1964 Democratic Convention where she said, ‘I am sick and tired of being sick and tired’ and was successful in getting her African American delegates recognized at the delegation. Coretta Scott King was the keeper of the flame and one of our nation’s greatest civil rights leaders in her own right.”

Over in the Senate, then-Sen. Chris Dodd, D. Conn., also understood why honoring Hamer, Parks, and King in this way was appropriate.

“These three women worked for a better life and an inclusive society for not only themselves and their children, but also for future generations of Americans,” Dodd said. “They selflessly and nonviolently challenged the laws and customs they believed were wrong. And they were right. Their ability to speak ‘truth to power’ became their legacy. All three are iconic in the fight for the right to vote and a better life for all Americans.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D. Calif., said she admired the women — and that they inspired her to serve in public service in the first place.

Not every lawmaker enthusiastically voted for the 2006 reauthorization. Many had concerns about which states continued to be covered by preclearance. But the near-unanimous passage of the law was an undeniable acknowledgement that the VRA was still needed in the United States, even more than 40 years after Johnson signed it.

In the wake of Bush’s extension, the VRA is not up for reauthorization now until 2031, but the law lost its full strength when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted it in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision. The ruling struck down as unconstitutional a key provision of the law that determines which jurisdictions have to preclear any voting changes with the federal government before those changes can go into effect.

The Supreme Court that gutted the law had a historic number of women on the bench. All three dissented, agreeing that the VRA — named for the three women civil rights leaders — should remain intact. In March, while we commemorate Women’s History Month, Congress should consider proposals to restore the law to its full strength and honor Hamer, Parks, and King.

One of those proposals, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, was introduced last June in the House by Rep. Terri Sewell — herself a history-making lawmaker. Sewell is one of the first women — and the first Black woman — elected to serve Alabama in Congress. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R. Va., should pledge this month to honor Sewell’s work by scheduling a hearing on a VRA restoration bill. And his Senate counterpart, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, should do the same. To not do that much would represent a shameful ignorance of Sewell’s work, of the civil rights leaders that the 2006 reauthorization was named for, and of the modern-day racial discrimination in voting that persists still today.

On Bloody Sunday Anniversary, New Video Features Alabama Story Demonstrating Why Congress Must Restore the Voting Rights Act

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Election year voters facing weakest protections against voting discrimination in half a century

WASHINGTON – Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, issued the following statement in advance of the 51st anniversary of Bloody Sunday:

“It has now been 51 years since Bloody Sunday marchers were brutalized by police for taking a stand against rampant voting discrimination across Alabama. Their bravery led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which became one of the most successful civil rights laws in American history.

But since the Supreme Court gutted the VRA nearly three years ago in Shelby County v. Holder, insidious forms of modern day voting discrimination have desecrated the legacy of those marchers. While Congress has taken symbolic steps to honor Selma’s foot soldiers – by visiting Alabama on Bloody Sunday’s anniversary, and by awarding those foot soldiers with a Congressional Gold Medal – many lawmakers have done nothing to restore the law for which those marchers risked their lives. We can no longer thank members of Congress for these commendable, but ultimately empty gestures.

Today, the campaign to restore the VRA is releasing a video highlighting the story of how, before the Supreme Court gutted it, the VRA protected the rights of minority voters when the city of Calera in Shelby County, Alabama, manipulated voting districts in a discriminatory manner to prevent Ernest Montgomery, the sole African American city councilmember, from being re-elected. As Montgomery says in the video, without the VRA’s ability to block discriminatory practices – as is the case now –  it’s ‘very doubtful that an African American or maybe some other minority in our community could possibly … be elected here in Calera.’

The video can be viewed below.

The commemorations this week in Selma are a solemn remembrance of the blood, sweat, tears, and lives involved in securing voting rights for racial minorities in this country. The only appropriate way to celebrate that achievement is by working thoughtfully, and expeditiously, to pass one of the bipartisan proposals currently before Congress that would help breathe life back into the law. And this is particularly important ahead of the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the VRA.

We cannot allow obstructionists in Congress to hijack our country’s progress, taking us back to a place where discrimination is the rule for many of our most vulnerable voters.”

Selma’s Marchers Now Have a Gold Medal, But the VRA is Still Devastated

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This week, during a bicameral, bipartisan ceremony in Emancipation Hall of the U.S. Capitol, members of Congress awarded Selma’s foot soldiers the Congressional Gold Medal. It was a well-deserved tribute to the sacrifices these Americans made in 1965, when marchers in Alabama brought national attention to the denial of their right to vote and spurred passage later that year of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

Signed by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965, the VRA has been reauthorized on four occasions, each time by a Republican president. Congress most recently voted overwhelmingly in 2006 (98–0 in the Senate, 390–33 in the House) when George W. Bush was in office to reauthorize the law for 25 years. Two senators who voted for that reauthorization, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, spoke at this week’s ceremony to honor the marchers. But in 2016, neither is supporting a proposal in the Senate to restore the law the marchers fought for.

When President Johnson signed the VRA, McConnell, then a law student at the University of Kentucky, was watching in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Forty-one years later as a U.S. senator, McConnell spoke strongly in favor of extending it in 2006. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This a great piece of legislation which has served an important purpose over many years,” he said. “The Voting Rights Act brought about greater justice for all. And while we celebrate that achievement, we must continue to strive for more.”

Sessions, who represents the state where these marchers risked their lives for voting rights, was a lead cosponsor of the law to award the Congressional Gold Medal, which passed unanimously last year. He now sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where voting rights legislation is first considered. In addition to his support for this medal, Sessions should be a cosponsor of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, introduced by the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, in June 2015. He could be pushing the committee’s chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, to hold a hearing on the bill. McConnell, who controls what comes up for a vote on the Senate floor, could be using his position to influence the committee’s consideration of the bill as well.

But they’re not.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, who actually supports a separate bipartisan bill to restore the VRA, also spoke at the Gold Medal presentation, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and saying of the foot soldiers that “They did not only change the way we live; they showed us how to live.” Ryan is right that the marchers — whose actions were the catalyst for the VRA’s eventual passage — showed us how to live. They showed us that America should be a place where racial discrimination in voting is not acceptable, where the silencing of some voices to keep others in power will not be tolerated, and where the equal treatment of all people is required. But today, voting discrimination persistsacross the country and Ryan, as a voting rights supporter and House Speaker, should be taking action to ensure the legacy of Selma’s marchers isn’t further stained.

He, like McConnell and Sessions, has done nothing to advance voting rights in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision that gutted the law in 2013.

At the ceremony, Rep. Terri Sewell, who represents Selma, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged their colleagues in Congress to act.

“There are still modern day barriers to voting. Challenges have weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The cause that the foot soldiers marched for is still so important today,” Sewell told the foot soldiers who were present at the ceremony. “We in Congress should give you the gift of strengthening the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

Leader Pelosi had the same message.

“But the men and women of Selma did not march for medals,” she said. “You marched to pass legislation, and you did. If we really truly value the legacy of the Selma foot soldiers, we must come together, Democrats and Republicans, and pass a renewed, restored, and strengthened Voting Rights Act without any further delay.”

“All of you, men and women alike, had the courage to march forward into tear gas and night sticks for voting rights for our democracy. We should have the courage and the decency to hold a vote in Congress on the Voting Rights Act,” Pelosi said.

A day before the ceremony, one of those courageous marchers, Rev. C.T. Vivian, called the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal “humbling.” But he said there was much more Congress could do to contend with discrimination that — in far too many places — continues today.

“When the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, it was like being beaten all over again,” Vivian said. “A medal is a start, but it will not mollify us. The way to truly honor our sacrifice is to restore the Voting Rights Act.”

There is still time for Congress to act before the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the VRA. And while symbolic actions like this week’s ceremony are well-deserved and appreciated, bipartisan proposals in both chambers of Congress continue to languish. As Vivian said, the marchers’ “struggle resulted in a true victory.” The least Congress can do this year is rebuild it.