One year ago, the Supreme Court threw out a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The law gave the federal government a kind of veto power over voting arrangements in states with a history of discrimination. Now, without those protections, civil rights activists say many states are moving polling places and enacting laws that disproportionately hurt minorities.
This week, they’re turning to Congress for help. Consider David Goodman, who stands on a patch of grass outside the U.S. Capitol on a steamy morning to deliver a message to lawmakers in the marble building behind him.
“And every person has the right to vote,” Goodman says.” And any time anybody diminishes that, marginalizes it, or simply passes a law to make it inconvenient, we’re kind of back to the future. And it’s happening today.”
Fifty years ago, the Ku Klux Klan kidnapped and murdered David’s older brother Andrew Goodman and two other men working to register black voters during Freedom Summer. The killings shocked the conscience of the nation and helped lead Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965. But last year, Goodman notes, a divided Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Roberts threw out a key part of that law.
“He actually cited my brother’s name as an example that back in the day Andy Goodman, James Cheney, Michael Schwerner were murdered and that doesn’t happen anymore and oh by the way we have a black president, which I always find a little offensive to lump those together as if to say there’s no more problems,” Goodman tells NPR.
Civil rights advocates say the problems haven’t gone away. They’ve just changed.
“Voting discrimination has changed over the years, hiding behind polling place changes, ridiculously long lines and, in some instances, redistricting,” says Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “But it is still a pervasive national problem that requires a national solution.”
For Henderson, the solution is for Congress to pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act. The bill would restore federal oversight of election laws in four states with a history of discrimination. The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on the legislation Wednesday.
But Henderson says despite its bipartisan sponsors, the House hasn’t moved on the bill since it was introduced there six months ago.
“Voting is the language of democracy,” Henderson says. “If you don’t vote, you don’t count.”
Robert Driscoll is a former Justice Department official during the George W. Bush administration. He sees no evidence voter identification laws and other changes have turned away minority voters.
“I think those arguments fly in the face of the available data which has generally shown that voter turnout, particularly black voter turnout, has gone up in preceding elections, and has gone up in states where voter i.d. and other voter integrity measures that advocates have complained about have been implemented,” Driscoll says.
Turnout is up in many states with new voting restrictions. In fact, Democrats may have used those laws to rally more people to come to the polls for mid-term and presidential elections.
And Driscoll points out the Voting Rights Act still allows people to sue over discrimination at the polls. But unlike the old regime the Supreme Court rejected, the law now puts the burden on voters to prove and finance their lawsuits.
For Ernest Montgomery, the issue is personal. He’s a three-term city council member in the city of Calera, Alabama. A few years ago, Calera redrew the voting boundaries for his district, the only one held by an African American. Montgomery lost his seat by two votes.
Then the U.S. Justice Department said the new map didn’t comply with the voting law.
“After that, they had us to have a new election which we did and after we had a new election I won my seat back,” Montgomery says, this time, by a wide margin.
But since then, the Supreme Court has overturned the part of the law that helped him. Now Montgomery worries Alabama and other states are moving in the wrong direction.
“Seems like we should be having more inclusion, trying to get people to participate in electing our leaders instead of suppressing their votes,” he says.
Montgomery says the law helps people do the right thing. And if you take away the law, he says, people are apt to go back to bad old habits.