“Fifty years ago, we went to Selma to get the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Fifty years later, we are going back to keep it.”
That simple and powerful statement was uttered by Rev. Albert E. Love, the founder and CEO of the Atlanta-based Voter Empowerment Collaborative, which is fighting to save the Voting Rights Act of 1965 from becoming obsolete.
The non-partisan organization, which does not endorse any political party nor candidates, solely works to empower voters through information, inspiration and involvement. He and his organization, along with thousands of other Atlantans, will be in Selma, Ala., for the 50th commemoration of “Bloody Sunday,” the day that now-Congressman John Lewis led a group of predominantly black marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were beaten to within inches of their lives.
Soon after, Rev. Martin Luther King led another march from Selma to Montgomery and it led to the signing of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson. President Obama, the first family, Rep. Lewis and many other dignitaries and celebrities will attend the activities that go on through the weekend of March 6-8. Love will also be there, but for more reasons than to celebrate and reminisce.
“We are going to Selma for two reasons: certainly we want to commemorate those who made the supreme sacrifice to help us get the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But we also want to highlight and get the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015 passed. Two years ago, the Supreme Court gutted a piece of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, especially Section 4 that mandated Justice Department oversight to ensure states obey the law and inform citizens of any new changes in the voting process.”
“That is not being done right now,” Love states. “The Voting Rights Act is pretty much meaningless, because we don’t have the protection of the federal government to oversee and hold accountable states that have a history of restricting voting rights. We are going there to put on the front burner the issue of our need to renew the Voting Rights Act.”
While Love and the Voter Empowerment Collaborative work on the grassroots level, they will be joined in the political arena by congressmen and senators who see the need to update the VRA. Congressmen Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) along with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced legislation to strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because they, along with civil rights groups, believe that conservative groups have worked to steadily erode voting rights among minorities. Therefore the trio is working to pass HHR 885, which is the Voting Rights Amendment Act.
“Right now, [the VRA] has been seriously weakened, and we don’t have the guarantees from the U.S. Department of Justice to come in and ensure that states won’t make … adjustments before they let the citizens know of the changes. As we speak, we are at a serious disadvantage,” said Love.
The aforementioned congressmen agree.
“The VRA is one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed,” said Sensenbrenner in a statement. “Our legitimacy as elected officials relies on the integrity of the ballot box. I urge my colleagues to support the VRAA because it is vital to our commitment to never again allow racial prejudices in the electoral process.”
The bill, introduced Wednesday by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.), responds to the Supreme Court ruling in 2013 that struck down Section 4 of the law. In a 5-4 vote, the court declared it was time to update the section, which determined which states and localities with a history of minority voter suppression, had to clear changes to their voting laws with the Justice Department. The Supreme Court justices left it up to Congress to come up with a new formula for designating which regions of the country require special scrutiny.
The Sensenbrenner-Conyers bill would update the formula by making it apply to all states and jurisdictions with deliberate voting violations in the past 15 years, and by creating uniform transparency requirements to keep communities informed about voting changes.
The legislation actually expands the Voting Rights Act as well, by giving more power to federal courts to stop discriminatory voting changes before they are implemented. It would lower the bar for plaintiffs seeking a preliminary injunction of a law in any federal court.
Sen. Leahy vowed to reintroduce the Senate legislation. The bill didn’t have any GOP co-sponsors in the last Congress, and there is no indication he will get that help this time around.
“I will continue to work to find a Senate Republican to join me in introducing bipartisan legislation to restore this landmark law so that every Americans’ right to vote is protected,” Leahy said in a Washington press conference.
Despite the backing of powerful, long-serving congressmen and senators, the bill has “withered on the vine,” Love says because of a lack of media and public attention. This makes the Selma trip all the more important in order to shine the spotlight back on voting rights.
“We are excited to be going to Selma. [It is] is a symbol of our struggle. We want people to get involved. This is the most important legislation of the 21st century because it will protect our right to vote,” Love said. “This will have far-reaching ramifications on our right to vote in terms of removing barriers. It was June 25, 2013 that Supreme Court made the ruling, and since then many of the states have enacted many voter ID laws and other restrictions.”
Love added that the Voter Empowerment Collaborative’s goal is to have the VRAA passed in the 114th Congress. But first, Love says, we need to get people talking about the proposed bill and understand the monumental importance of the Supreme Court decision of 2013 that took away Section 4 of the VRA.