On Aug. 6 of each year, patriotic Americans of good conscience celebrate that historic day in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson’s signature made the Voting Rights Act the law of the land.
Joined by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ms. Rosa Parks and other civil rights leaders of that time, President Johnson declared that the Act was “a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield.”
Most Americans would agree, whatever may be their race, creed or political philosophy. The legislation and its several congressional reauthorizations were bipartisan affirmations that we are one nation and self-governing people, whatever our differences and disputes may be.
However, with all due respect to the slim, 5-4 Supreme Court majority in Shelby County v. Holder, their misreading of the Act, its history and the United States Constitution has severely wounded the legitimacy of our democratic process.
In so doing, the Court thrust the issue of universal voting rights back into the forefront of our national political and legislative debates.
To win back and protect our most basic freedom will require renewed commitment by the Congress, court challenges by the Justice Department, and an expanded national movement to assure that all citizens can comply with voter registration laws.
The Congress must act swiftly and effectively to repair what the Supreme Court has injured, legislating the factual determinations needed to re-energize the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance requirement.
The U.S. Department of Justice must closely examine the judicial record in recent voting rights cases to determine which states can and should be required by our federal courts to submit to preclearance status.
Perhaps most important of all, Americans who believe in equal voting rights should now be doing all that we can to assure that no citizen is denied the right to register and vote.
Considering the prospects for corrective congressional action, I am cautiously optimistic.
“In 2006, Democrats and Republicans came together to reauthorize the law, garnering overwhelming bipartisan support in a Republican-led Congress . . .,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has observed. “This year, we must follow in that same tradition, taking the court’s decision as our cue for further action to strengthen this legislation.”
In light of the Republicans’ House majority, many Americans may doubt the willingness of this Congress to correct the Supreme Court’s error. Yet, I remain heartened by the declaration of Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and a key leader in our renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 1982 and 2006.
“The Voting Rights Act is vital to America’s commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in the electoral process,” Sensenbrenner declared. “I am disappointed by the Court’s ruling, but my colleagues and I will work in a bipartisan fashion to update Section 4 to ensure Section 5 can be properly implemented to protect voting rights, especially for minorities.”
I commend Sensenbrenner’s patriotic commitment and will continue to work with him and like-minded colleagues to fashion a solution, even while we candidly acknowledge that correcting the Court’s error in Shelby County will be a political challenge.
We can anticipate that corrective action by the Congress may take some time. In the interim, it is important to note that other important safeguards in the Voting Rights Act remain in full force and effect.
To their credit, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder are fulfilling their pledge to aggressively protect the voting rights of all Americans. Although showing intentional discrimination under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act is more difficult legally, it has the advantage of applying to discriminatory intent in any state’s election laws.
Attorney General Holder already has initiated Section 3 “bail in” litigation against the state of Texas. Federal lawsuits against other states (like North Carolina, Alabama, Virginia and Pennsylvania) may soon follow.
If a federal court finds that such discrimination in voting laws has occurred, the court can require continued preclearance of that state’s election laws for whatever period the court considers appropriate. In the case against Texas, the Attorney General has asked the court to apply Section 3 preclearance requirements to Texas actions since May 2011 and for a subsequent period of at least 10 years.
History informs us, however, that no one remains free unless he or she is prepared to work for that freedom. Unlike Maryland, where our governor and Legislature have made it more convenient to register and vote (http://elections.state.md.us), voter ID laws are now the law in many other states, making it more difficult for our elderly and young to register and vote.
Until the courts take corrective action in these states, massive voter registration efforts are the civil rights marches of our time. Every American has an important role to play.
We are the civil rights generation of this 21st Century. Our children and generations yet unborn depend upon us to protect them – and we must not fail.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland's Seventh Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.