In the Freedom Summer of 1964, several hundred students from across the United States traveled to Mississippi to register black voters in the face of discriminatory voting laws. This year’s 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer calls for a renewed focus on the obstacles U.S. citizens still face in securing the right to vote.
Perhaps the largest challenge to voting rights in recent memory was last year’s Shelby County v. Holder decision, in which the Supreme Court struck down a crucial component of the Voting Rights Act, curtailing the federal government’s ability to monitor voter discrimination.
The original Voting Rights Act required states with a history of discrimination to gain Department of Justice approval before changing voting laws. Last year, the Court ruled that the manner in which states were chosen for DOJ oversight, also called “preclearance,” was unconstitutional. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts explained that the process focused on “decades-old data relevant to decades-old problems, rather than current data reflecting current needs.” Without a formula to decide where it could be used, the preclearance system was rendered defunct.
One year later, seven of the nine states released from preclearance have introduced restrictive new voting laws. Florida resumed plans to use a Department of Homeland Security database to check voters’ citizenship status, a plan which disproportionately targets Hispanic voters. States such as North Carolina and Georgiaalso targeted minority voters by moving to shorten their early voting periods, which are used by black voters in some areas at twice the rate of white voters.
Voter identification laws put in place in 30 states also threaten to restrict voting rights by requiring photo identification at the polls. Securing a photo ID, even in states that provide them for free, still requires obtaining proof of identity that can cost up to $25. Several states are crafting laws that would exclude out-of-state and student IDs from the list of acceptable identification, making it almost impossible for out-of-state students to vote in local elections. And married women can now be blocked from voting if the married name on their ID does not match their maiden name on voter registration rolls. The barrier between marginalized groups and voting rights may have diminished since the Freedom Summer, but it has not disappeared.
At the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary conference at Tougaloo College, Feminist Majority Foundation campus organizer Edwith Theogene challenged attendees to overcome the obstacles presented by the Shelby decision:
How do we live in this post-Shelby world? … We need to use old strategies to inform new strategies. This isn’t a new battle. We need to come up with a strategy to break down a political platform built on excluding people, and that’s why voting matters.
Congress just might have the new strategy Theogene requested. Last Wednesday, on the one-year anniversary of the Shelby decision, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a bill proposed to re-invigorate the Voting Rights Act. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced the Voting Rights Act Amendment at the hearing:
The Voting Rights Amendment Act updates and strengthens the foundations of the original law to combat both current and future discrimination. It does so in a way that is based on current conditions and recent history.
The proposed Voting Rights Act Amendment would update the original by creating a new preclearance formula. The new formula would mandate preclearance in states with five violations of federal voting law in the last 15 years. These new criteria would currently cover only four states, eliminating Alabama, Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Virginia from the original preclearance list. But adding states to the list would be much easier: Previously, voting laws did not count as a violation unless plaintiffs could prove it was passed with the intent to discriminate. Under the new amendment, laws that result in discrimination would count toward a state’s violation numbers, regardless of intent.
Another provision, however, prevents voter ID laws from automatically counting as violations. The decision to place lighter sanctions on voter ID laws was allegedly made to garner Republican support, but it has drawn criticism from groups such as the NAACP and ACLU. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who spoke at the March on Washington 50 years ago, supports the bill despite these shortcomings. “I will admit it is not a perfect bill,” he said. “But it is a necessary and good beginning.”
One year ago, the Supreme Court challenged Congress to revamp the Voting Rights Act for the 21st century. The Voting Rights Act Amendment of 2014 may not be the perfect solution—in fact, it may not even make it past the Senate. But it sends a message: The struggle for voting rights will not be forgotten. This amendment is just one step in protecting voting rights, but it is one worth stepping across the aisle for.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Vox Efx.
Emily Shugerman is a politics major at Occidental College and an intern at Ms. Follow her on Twitter.