Sen. Bill Nelson: A stake in the heart of a law that guaranteed fair elections

Published: Saturday, July 6, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 3, 2013 at 9:42 p.m.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in striking down a central provision of the Voting Rights Act, hammered a stake into the heart of a law that’s been used to guarantee fair elections in this country since 1965.

Now, it’s unfortunately left up to a dysfunctional and highly partisan Congress to fix the law. And if I had my way, we’d already be working on it.

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to protect everybody’s right to vote.

In a nutshell, it required states with a history of voter suppression to get approval from the federal government before making changes to their voting laws. For nearly five decades, these states had to show why a change in their voting laws or practices was necessary and demonstrate how that change wouldn’t harm voters.

But the Supreme Court — by a 5-4 vote — gutted that law, saying a part of it was outdated. In so doing, the highest court in our land rendered the law void until Congress comes up with new criteria to be used in determining which states and localities have to get federal approval in advance of voting changes.

Specifically, the court’s majority said our country has changed since the 1960s, when the Voting Rights Act was first passed, and that we no longer have blatant voter suppression tactics, like, poll taxes and literacy tests — which were once used to disenfranchise untold numbers of voters all across the country.

Unfortunately, voter suppression is alive and well in this country. It may not be as blatant.But it happens and, in my view, is more stealthy, sophisticated and just as pernicious as ever.

Leading up to the most recent elections in 2012, 15 states passed restrictive voting laws and executive actions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. And, as the center noted, these states accounted for 203 electoral votes, or 75 percent of the total needed to win the presidency.

One of those states was my home state of Florida, where the Legislature passed and the governor signed a voter suppression law that caused the League of Women Voters, after 73 years, to decide it would no longer conduct voter registration drives throughout the state. The new law also cut Florida’s early voting days from 14 to eight.

It was the Voting Rights Act that allowed the federal government to step in and win a case before a panel of Washington, D.C., judges who found that Florida’s reduction of early voting days “would make it materially more difficult for some minority voters to cast a ballot.”

So, Florida had to restore 96 hours of early voting, or the equivalent of four days.

Still, the new election law lead to an embarrassing fiasco on Election Day. Lines were long and people waited for hours to cast their vote. Faced with calls for extending poll hours, Republican Gov. Rick Scott chose to ignore the people and, in so doing, failed to do what his two Republican predecessors had done: extend voting hours in some of the most swamped polling places to give the folks there a little more time to cast their ballot.

The Supreme Court’s decision not only removes much needed voter protections, it prevents the federal government from trying to block discriminatory state laws before they go into effect. States and local jurisdictions, including even those with a history of voter suppression, are now free to do as they please.

In fact, it was only moments after the justices invalidated part of the Voting Rights Act that Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said his state will begin “immediately” honoring local legislation that a federal court has said imposes “strict, unforgiving burdens” on many Texas residents wanting to cast ballots.

The right to vote has not always been given to all Americans. Black men didn’t have the right to vote until after the Civil War. Then women won their right to cast a ballot in 1920. And minorities such as Latinos didn’t get voter protections until the mid 1970s.

In rejecting the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court ignored our country’s history of expanding fundamental rights — not making it more difficult for citizens to obtain them.

I am deeply disappointed by the court’s decision. But I remain committed now more than ever to working with a deeply divided Senate to move toward a common vision — protecting and preserving the democratic ideal of one person, one vote.

Bill Nelson is Florida’s senior U.S. senator.

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