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Congress must fix the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights ruling

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson | 7/5/2013, 6 a.m.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her blistering dissent against the court’s ruling that declared Section 4 of the ...

“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” – Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her blistering dissent against the court’s ruling that declared Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional last week.

I wish every member of the Supreme Court had the wisdom and insight of Justice Ginsburg. Her message is clear: The Voting Rights Act is still doing its job.

We are closer to the goal of equal voting rights, but we are not there yet. Efforts made to restrict the right to vote in the last election prove we still have a long way to go. The progress we have made proves that the law works and is a reason to keep the Voting Rights Act intact, not a sign that it has become obsolete.

This is especially true here in the South.

During the last renewal of the landmark law just seven years ago, Congress conducted more than 21 hearings with nearly 100 witnesses and amassed a 15,000-page record documenting the ongoing discrimination against minority voters. Congress voted to renew the law in overwhelming bipartisan majorities: 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate.

But this activist, conservative court struck a dagger in the heart of the law last week. Ruling from the bench Jim Crow-style, the court held 5-4 that the decades-old law used to protect minority voting rights had outlived its usefulness.

While Section 2 of the VRA remains intact – not to mention the 15th Amendment – five justices struck down Section 4, which was used to determine whether a state or local government had to get permission from the Justice Department before making changes to their voting laws. This ruling renders Section 5 – the administrative process that held local jurisdictions accountable for unfair changes to voting laws – moot.

To call this ruling deeply disappointing is an understatement. This decision represents a serious setback for voting rights and has the potential to adversely affect millions of Americans.

The Supreme Court’s decision can only be described as a historic overreach in which the court ignored its own precedent, the findings of Congress, and disregarded evidence of ongoing discrimination at the polls.

Disenfranchisement does not only occur in states with a history of discrimination. Most recently, we have seen an uptick in attempts to disenfranchise voters in other jurisdictions around the country.

The 2012 elections saw the attempt to disenfranchise voters taken to a whole new level – with voter ID laws, cutting off early voting in certain areas, end to same-day registration, and measures making it harder to register large groups of voters.

It’s these kinds of second-generation forms of racial bias that the VRA and Section 4 address specifically. In fact, it’s already happening. In states previously covered by the law, including Texas, North Carolina and Alaska, the GOP is already revving up to push through voting procedure changes.

Predictably, GOP leaders in North Carolina are engineering an end to the state’s early voting, Sunday voting and same-day registration provisions, all popular with black voters.

A call for strong, swift action by the Congress to draft a new formula is now front and center. I will work with all my colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, to ensure voters have every necessary protection.

The Voting Rights Act is as necessary today as it was almost 50 years ago. Congress must act quickly to strengthen it. We have no other choice.

Rep. Hank Johnson represents the 4th Congressional District, which includes DeKalb and parts of Rockdale, Newton and Gwinnett counties. He is a member of the House Judiciary Committee, where the drafting of new language for the Voting Rights Act will take place.