Voter suppression is a serious issue that threatens the integrity of our elections. As a community, we should be deeply involved in combating voter suppression and expanding access to the polls for all Americans – particularly in the wake of the destructive ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. As a Vice Chair of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus and a member of the community that has fought against voter suppression, I remain gravely concerned with voter suppression in our country.
As we all know, Texas has been wrestling with its own voter suppression laws for many years. In fact, voter discrimination and the suppression of minority voices is no new phenomenon in Texas. District maps drawn in 2011 were found by the courts to be intentionally discriminatory against minorities. In order to avoid litigation, the Texas State Legislature then hastily adopted an interim map in 2013 with the supposed intention of addressing further concerns regarding discrimination.
Recently, judges from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard closing arguments from plaintiffs and the State of Texas in the latest redistricting trial. So far, it appears that there is no evidence to suggest that the 2013 Legislature made any attempt to address the previously outlined concerns with the congressional districts. However, the court has not issued a final ruling.
When fellow Texan and former President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, our country was in the midst of wrestling with literacy tests, the purging of voter rolls, and intimidation by those who wished to keep minorities and other vulnerable members of the population from casting their ballots at the polls. It was a difficult time in our nation’s history, but one that we seemingly overcame together through the broad recognition that all Americans should have equal access to the polls. After just a short period, the positive effects of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) grew quickly apparent but has been met with fierce opposition in the decades to follow.
Fifty years later, we are once again faced with the same fight under a different, more sinister guise. In June of 2013, the United States Supreme Court voted in Shelby County v. Holder to invalidate Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 4 of the VRA determined which states or localities required that changes to their voting laws be cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice or in federal court. Until the formula under Section 4 is redefined in a way that can pass muster in the Supreme Court, a key enforcement tool of the Voting Rights Act remains ineffectual.
Fast forward to 2017, President Trump issued an executive order that would create an “election integrity” commission. The stated purpose of this commission was to combat voter fraud, but we know the true meaning behind an executive order of this nature. It is to repeat the egregious mistakes of our past and once again prevent legitimate voters from exercising their constitutional rights to vote.
After passage of the VRA, nearly 1 million Black voters registered to vote within just four years, including over fifty percent of the Black voting age population in every southern state. We witnessed the number of Black elected officials more than double in the South, increasing from 72 to 159, following the 1966 elections. By the mid-1980s, there were more African Americans in public office across the South than throughout the rest of the nation combined. Reviewing the great number of accomplishments made under the VRA, I find it difficult to reconcile that we need an election fraud commission or investigations into such actions when there are more cases of voter intimidation and limitations placed on those who seek to be involved in the electoral process.
As the representative of District 30 and the state of Texas, it is my duty to address the concerns of countless Americans here in Congress. We must speak out against thinly-veiled commissions meant to suppress the vote. We must bolster the Voting Rights Act to its former power and encourage others to combat voter suppression and protect unfettered access to the ballot.
When I say we, I am not limiting and placing the burden to protect voting rights on one group of people because it is simply a matter that impacts everyone in our state and country — no matter the color of your skin. Unfortunately those in Black and brown communities tend to be targeted and are mostly impacted by the injustice when they are not able to participate in our democratic system. However, this does not have to remain. I will continue to be involved in the dialogue between advocacy groups, constituents and elected officials to help find a solution that will diminish voter suppression.
Eddie Bernice Johnson is a Representative from Texas and vice chair of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus.