As he rolled out an agenda aimed at racial equality on Tuesday, President Joe Biden said that now is the time for Congress to consider reimplementing the Voting Rights Act, a landmark Civil Rights Era bill that was largely stripped by the Supreme Court in 2013.
The Voting Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 to combat voter suppression efforts, especially in the South. The bill was passed following the Bloody Sunday attack in Selma, Alabama, as civil rights leaders were attacked during a march through Selma while demanding equal voting rights for Black voters.
Before the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, states with a significant history of voter discrimination would have to get approval from the Department of Justice to change any voting procedures or practices. The Supreme Court called on Congress to simply devise a formula for the DOJ to use. Eight years later, Congress still has not done so.
Getting such legislation approved is easier said than done. In 2019, Democrats put forward a bill that passed the US House, which was held by Democrats, but failed to be taken up by Senate Republicans.
The bill said that a state shall be subject to preclearance of voting practice changes for a 10-year period if 15 or more voting rights violations occurred in the state during the previous 25 years or 10 or more violations occurred during the previous 25 years, at least one of which was committed by the state itself.
The bill also specified certain thresholds regarding racial minority groups, language minority groups, or minority groups on Indian land, must preclear before implementing. These practices include changes to methods of election, changes to jurisdiction boundaries, redistricting, changes to voting locations and opportunities, and changes to voter registration list maintenance, according to the legislation.
With a new Congress in place, the bill would have to be voted again in the House, but could receive a more receptive audience in the Senate now that Sen. Chuck Schumer is the majority leader.
“We need to restore and expand the Voting Rights Act,” Biden said on Tuesday. “And continue to fight back against laws that many states are engaged in to suppress the right to vote while expanding access to the ballot box for all eligible voters.”
Without the powers of the Voting Rights Act stripped, the ACLU is concerned about what that might look like for redistricting in 2021. The redrawing of Congressional districts this year will be the first time since 1961 that districts will be redrawn without the power of the 1965 legislation.
“Undeniably, there are problems with our democracy that must be fixed. But these issues do not arise from purported voter fraud,” ACLU senior legislative counsel Sonia Gill wrote. “Rather, they are the legacy problems of our republic: systematic efforts by politicians to erect voting barriers and to discriminate against voters of color to tip the balance of power. These problems are enduring, persistent, and verifiable.”