In January 2013 at the State of the Union address in Washington, D.C., Desiline Victor, while sitting in First Lady Michele Obama’s box, heard President Obama deliver a very positive and promising outlook for our Country. Desiline Victor’s presence was designed to underscore the importance of that most precious and necessary element of our democracy: the right to vote. Desiline Victor is an American of Haitian descent, she was 102 years old, and she stood in line for hours in Florida just to exercise this most precious right — the right to cast her ballot for her candidate of choice.
Desiline was able to do this because of our U.S. Constitution Article 1 and subsequent Amendments, numbers XII, XV, XXIV, and XXVI. But her determination, and that of thousands like her, is being challenged. Following decades of struggle to secure the right to vote and unparalleled violence and intimidation, finally, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was passed. Echoing the 15th Amendment, the VRA prohibits states from imposing any “voting qualifications or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice or procedure … to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the U.S. to vote on account of race or color.”
This landmark legislation provides federal oversight of “covered jurisdictions” whereby any adjustment in voting practices would require approval from the Department of Justice. Congress has repeatedly voted to extend the VRA, most recently in 2006, when both houses voted overwhelmingly to extend it for another 25 years (98 to 0 in the Senate, 390 to 33 in the House).
These “covered jurisdictions” identified in the VRA, primarily in the Southern U.S., include all of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia and Alaska, as well as parts of Arizona, Hawaii and Idaho.
In 1975, Texas was added due to findings against non-English speaking persons. Even in California, Yuba County (except for Browns Valley Irrigation District and the City of Wheatland) falls within the purview of the VRA. Today, all or part of 16 states falls under the pre-clearance provisions of the VRA.
A current Selby, Ala., lawsuit (Selby County v. Holder) largely concerns Section 5 of the VRA, the pre-clearance provision, but it also targets Section 4, which defines which jurisdictions are subject to the pre-clearance requirement.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in that case in March 2013. As discussed, Section 5 of the VRA requires that the U.S. Department of Justice “preclear” any voting changes. The burden of proof under current law is on the covered jurisdiction to establish that the proposed change does not have a retrogressive purpose.
The very fact that the Supreme Court agreed to hear the challenge to the VRA is indicative of the assault on democratic rights being currently waged in our country. It also reflects the aggressive posture of the court’s right-wing bloc: Antonia Scalia, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and John Roberts. Now, more than 40 years after the passage of the VRA, 33 states with Republican governors and legislatures have chosen to fabricate voter-fraud conspiracies in order to impose onerous voter-identification requirements that would negatively impact voters who traditionally vote Democratic. The overturning or emasculation of the VRA could serve as a green light for broader attacks on our right to vote. If anything, we need to broaden the “covered jurisdictions” identified in the VRA.
On Tuesday, June 25, the Supreme Court decided in the Selby County v. Holder case that Congress and the states should revisit the formula in determining how to participate in the prescreening requirement of the VRA. This decision will have far reaching implications on voting rules throughout the U.S. States will potentially be allowed to circumvent VRA Sections 4 and 5. The future of the U.S. is in our hands. If we, individually and collectively, don’t pay attention, other people will take full advantage of the vacuum we allow them to fill.
The experience of Desiline Victor and the Selby County v Holder court case are not isolated events. As Americans, we have always valued the right to vote.
We must remain vigilant and ensure that every citizen not only has an equal, convenient, safe, educated opportunity to vote, but that every citizen exercises that franchise.
Jim Firth is chair of the Nevada County Democrats.