This morning, on a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court struck down a central portion of the Voting Rights Act (Section 4), effectively ending the practice in which some states with a history of racial discrimination must receive clearance from the federal government before changing voting laws. Although the court did not strike down Section 5, which allows the federal government to require pre-approval, without Section 4, which determines which states would need to receive clearance, Section 5 is largely without significance -- unless Congress passes a new bill for determining which states would be covered (New York Times). With respect to this decision, Congresswoman Corrine Brown made the following statement:
"Before the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was enacted, millions of African-Americans were systematically prevented from registering to vote or casting their ballots across much of the South. Moreover, there were numerous other parts of the country where blacks were dissuaded from voting, as poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests, and other nefarious devices were employed to keep Americans from exercising their most fundamental civil right.
In my state of Florida, between the era of Reconstruction and 1992, there were not any African Americans who represented the state in Congress. And it was not until I filed numerous lawsuits in protest, the premise of which was based on the fundaments of the Voting Rights Act, that three African Americans were elected to Congress: Congresswoman Carrie Meek, Congressman Alcee Hastings, and myself.
As a Floridian, if you ask me why the Voting Rights Act is just as important now as it was nearly 50 years ago, I can answer that with just one word: Florida. Let us recall what took place in my home state during the elections in 2000:
27,000 ballots were discarded, simply thrown out in my congressional district (Florida's third at the time) because of faulty voting machines. And it should come as no surprise that these machines were placed in precincts in African American neighborhoods (7,8,9 and 10).
In addition, during the 2000 elections, Florida Governor Jeb Bush had spent $4 million of taxpayer money to purge a list of approximately 40,000 suspected felons from the voter rolls across the state, giving zero consideration to the accuracy of the list. Later press reports, supported by senior staff e-mails from within the Florida Department of State, revealed that many of those removed from the list were, in fact, eligible voters, who were wrongfully removed and subsequently, denied their lawful right to vote.
Fast forward to 2012. In 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott implemented HB 1355, which eliminated early voting on the last Sunday before Election Day, and also decreased the number of early voting days from 14 to 8. These restrictions were significant contributing factors as to why many Florida voters had to wait in line for three to four hours or more simply to cast a vote on Election Day. There is ample evidence demonstrating that African Americans and Hispanics vote on Sundays in far greater numbers than whites. In fact, statistics show that in the 2008 general election in Florida, 33.2% of those who voted early on the last Sunday before Election Day were African American, while 23.6% were Hispanic.
In fact, I filed a lawsuit against the state of Florida to help Floridians recover the opportunity to vote early, which they enjoyed prior last year. My lawsuit also will expose the insidious purpose and effect behind the limits placed on early voting, namely, to suppress minority voters from getting to the polls.
I find it outright embarrassing that just over a decade after the 2000 election debacle that more than half of the states across the nation have taken steps backwards with respect to voter inclusivity and the basic right to vote. Arguably the biggest contributor to voter retrogression are Voter ID laws. Already, 34 states introduced legislation requiring a voter ID (while five states - Wisconsin, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, already passed voter ID laws, with Georgia and Indiana already having strict photo identification requirements in place). The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law estimated that 11 percent of potential voters do not have state-issued photo identification, and the Center found that the new laws affects a total of 3.2 million voters in the affected states.
The ability to exercise the right to vote is the foundation of our democracy. Now more than ever, our nation needs to uphold the central tenets of the Voting Rights Act, which I believe are constitutional, as demonstrated by the voluminous legislative record that supported the 2006 VRA reauthorization. And in accordance with today's ruling, Congress needs to update and clarify the formula to determine which states are covered. We have come a very long way in this country, but still have a long way to go -- even in 2013. We need to protect the right to vote for every American and prevent any infringement of those rights -- whether by states, organizations or individuals, while upholding and even strengthening the Voting Rights Act!"