Protecting the Right to Vote: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

August 27, 2013

This post is courtesy of  Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Jocelyn Samuels

The right to vote is the bedrock of our democracy.

Fifty years ago this week, 200,000 Americans marched on Washington to demand racial equality, economic opportunity, and voting rights for all. Their call spurred Congress to pass landmark pieces of civil rights legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Inspired by Dr. King’s vision of equal justice and equal opportunity, these laws intended to secure for all in America the fundamental rights guaranteed by our constitution.

This summer, however, the Supreme Court invalidated a core provision of the Voting Rights Act in a case called Shelby County v. Holder.  Prior to that ruling, certain states and localities with a history of voting discrimination were required to obtain federal permission, or “preclearance,” before implementing any voting changes.  But, as a result of the Court’s recent ruling, those states and localities are no longer required to seek permission before changing their voting rules and practices.

This disappointing decision eliminated one of the Justice Department’s most effective tools in combating discrimination in voting. But this setback has not tempered our resolve to ensure that every eligible citizen has access to the ballot box.

Last week, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the State of Texas seeking to block the implementation of its highly restrictive Voter ID law.  At the same time, the Department also asked the court for permission to join another pending lawsuit in Texas to challenge the State’s 2011 redistricting plans for its Congressional delegation and its State House of Representatives.  We believe that both the Voter ID law and the two redistricting plans are intentionally discriminatory and would deny Hispanics and African Americans an equal opportunity to vote.   Our complaint also alleges that the Voter ID law will have the effect of disenfranchising disproportionate numbers of minority voters.

Under Texas’ voter ID law, for example, many commonly held forms of photo ID—such as student IDs, employee IDs, or Medicare IDs—are not sufficient to vote in person. A substantial portion of Texas voters, many of whom are Hispanic or African American, lack the required forms of photo ID, which are limited to just 6 forms of specified documents, including a driver’s license, personal ID card, citizenship certificate, passport, military ID, and license to carry a concealed handgun.

The burdens associated with obtaining the required forms of identification—including significant costs related to missing work and travelling to a Department of Public Safety (DPS) office that issues photo IDs—weigh most heavily on members of racial or ethnic minorities. Many Texas counties have no DPS office at all, requiring some voters to travel approximately 200 miles roundtrip to obtain the required ID. And in dozens of counties, DPS offices are open only one or two days a week, and no DPS office is open after 6 pm or on weekends.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, a federal court blocked implementation of Texas’s voter ID law and the redistricting maps concluding that they would have a discriminatory effect on Hispanic and African-American voters.

But after Shelby County, the VRA no longer requires Texas to seek permission before implementing any of its voting laws, including the discriminatory voter ID law and redistricting maps, and the previous decisions were vacated by the court.  Because we believe the threat to the rights of minority voters in Texas remains, the Attorney General felt compelled to act.

As Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week, “We will not allow the Supreme Court’s recent decision to be interpreted as open season for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights.”

The department is committed to using the tools still available in the VRA to prevent any additional discrimination in voting laws.  To that end, we are requesting in both lawsuits that the court order bail-in relief under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act. Intended to remedy persistent, intentional discrimination in voting, bail in relief would require Texas to once again receive pre-clearance from the federal government before implementing any voting changes.

When he signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson announced, “Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color. This law will ensure them the right to vote. The wrong is one which no American, in his heart, can justify. The right is one which no American, true to our principles, can deny.”

Existing statutes cannot completely replace the protections afforded by the key portion of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down. As President Obama has noted repeatedly, it is the responsibility of Congress to pass legislation to fill the void left by the Supreme Court’s ruling. But the Department of Justice remains committed to using all available tools to ensure that Americans across the country can cast a ballot free from discrimination.