By Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America / Aug. 6, 2015
President Barack Obama marked the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act on Thursday by calling on lawmakers to uphold voter protections diminished by a 2013 Supreme Court decision to allow states to independently alter election laws.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and other lawmakers and advocates for voters’ rights, joined Obama in a video teleconference broadcast from the White House.
“As I said when I was in Selma, we’re glad you’re here, members of Congress, but we’ll be even more glad … if you go back to Washington and reaffirm America’s commitment to what was fought for here at this bridge,” Obama said, referring to a speech he gave in March at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where 50 years ago civil rights protesters demanding the right to vote were brutally attacked by police.
“Now, so far, that hasn’t happened. John Lewis is ready to do it and has legislation pending … but it keeps on slipping as a priority,” Obama said. “This has to be a priority. If this isn’t working, then nothing is working. We have to get it done.”
Since 2010, 21 Republican-governed states have enacted restrictive laws requiring voters to provide identification before casting ballots. While Republicans say the laws are necessary for combating fraud, Democrats see them as stifling and intended to disenfranchise minorities who typically support their party. Critics of the law contend that black, Latino, poor and elderly voters are less likely to have such identification.
Obama on Thursday dismissed Republican arguments about combating fraud, saying there “are almost no instances of people going to vote in somebody else’s name.”
“I’ve looked at the data … It doesn’t happen,” he said. ”The only reason to pass this law … is to make it harder for folks to vote.”
The enactment of voter ID laws was made possible by a 2013 Supreme Court decision to strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required nine mostly Southern states with a history of discrimination against black people to seek federal approval before changing election laws.
Since the 2013 court decision, lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives have introduced two bills to restore Voting Rights Act protections, both of which are pending. Supporters of the bills will hold a day of action on Thursday in New York City to call on Congress to pass the measures.
“The Voting Rights Act guaranteed that every American had an equal say in their government and could cast a ballot free of discrimination,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, the director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “Now, 50 years later, the Supreme Court has forced us to refight these battles, and restrictive laws threaten the voting rights of millions across the country.”
A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday struck down a 2011 Texas voter ID law enacted by then-Gov. Rick Perry, saying it violated the Voting Rights Act through its “discriminatory effects.”
However, the decision was not an outright victory for supporters of the Voting Rights Act, as the court sent the law back to a lower court to be amended. Until then, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said it would remain in effect.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6, 1965. It allowed millions of minorities to exercise their right to vote in states that previously hindered them through a range of tactics, including poll taxes, literacy tests, civics quizzes, intimidation and violence.
Johnson’s signing of the law followed the “Bloody Sunday” police beatings of civil rights protesters in Selma that March. The American Civil Liberties Union said that a quarter of a million black voters were registered to vote by the end of 1965.
“Turnout among black Southerners exceeded that of their white counterparts in four of the 12 presidential elections since 1965, and nationwide black turnout clearly exceeded white turnout in presidential elections in 2012 and perhaps in 2008,” according to a new report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
But Obama and Lewis said that restrictive voting laws threaten the progress made over the past 50 years.
“There are forces that want to take us back, but we’ve come too far,” Lewis said during the teleconference on Thursday. “With this president, we said we’re not going back. We’re going forward.”
With wire services