Civil rights groups rally to amend Voting Rights Act

By Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC


A Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in June 2013 decreases safeguards against discrimination for voters. To counter this, the Voting Rights Act Amendment (VRAA) was introduced Jan. 16, with civil rights groups working to pass the legislation by the August midterm recess.


Why is the VRA important to Asian Americans?

The right to vote gives Asian Americans the power to be heard; to have a say in what happens in this country. This is why protecting voting rights is a fundamental issue for Asian Americans. As Asian American communities continue to grow rapidly across the country, reactions to this influx can result in racial tension and discrimination. Asian American communities are growing rapidly in areas that have a history of voter discrimination. Tools, like the fixes proposed in the VRAA bill, protect Asian Americans’ right to vote and ensure the election process is free from discrimination and harassment.



First enacted in 1965 with large bipartisan support, the VRA is a landmark law that prohibits discriminatory voting practices that have been responsible for the denial and abridgement of the voting rights of racial, ethnic and language minorities in the United States.

Congress has reauthorized the VRA four times in bipartisan fashion, most recently in 2006, when President George W. Bush signed the bill after both the House (vote of 390-33) and the Senate (vote of 98-0) approved the measure.

At the heart of the VRA is Section 5, which requires jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination to submit any proposed changes in voting procedures to the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal district court in the District of Columbia to determine if the change would result in discrimination before it is implemented.

This preapproval process is known as “preclearance” and stops discrimination before it occurs.


Shelby County v. Holder

In April 2010, Shelby County, a largely White suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, filed suit in federal court in Washington, D.C., seeking to have Section 5 of the VRA declared unconstitutional. Shelby County claimed that Congress did not have the required constitutional authority when it reauthorized Section 5 of the VRA in 2006.

The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. On June 25, 2013, the Court ruled 5-4 that the coverage formula in Section 4(b) of the VRA, which was used to determine the states and jurisdictions subject to Section 5 preclearance, was unconstitutional because it was based on “decades old data.”

Thus, while the Court did not invalidate Section 5, it rendered it useless by striking down the formula that determined what jurisdictions were required to submit for preclearance.

Prior to the ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, nine states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia) and parts of six states (California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota) were covered under Section 5.


Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014

In response to the Shelby decision, Congress introduced the bipartisan VRAA of 2014, which proposes a modern and flexible set of protections that ensure an effective response to voting discrimination against racial, ethnic and language minorities across the country. The bill’s provisions would:

  • Create a flexible, nationwide formula updated annually and based on current voting rights violations to determine which jurisdictions require preclearance for voting changes
  • Enhance the power of federal courts to stop discriminatory voting changes from being implemented and to order preclearance remedies as needed
  • Create new nationwide transparency of certain voting changes to keep communities informed about voting changes that raise concerns
  • Continue the federal observer program, critical to combating racial discrimination and ensuring language access at the polls.



Materials adapted from VRA for Today campaign materials from Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

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One Comment

  1. First, there isn’t any legislation needed. The Shelby County decision was aimed at only one section of the Voting Rights Act – the preclearance provision, requiring some (mostly southern) jurisdictions to get permission in advance from the federal government before making any change related to voting – and the rest of the Act remains in full force, including other, potent enforcement provisions for every jurisdiction in the country.
    And, indeed, for better or worse the Justice Department and civil-rights groups are now using those other provisions to try to advance their agendas, which amount to a war on voter-ID requirements and ensuring the continued racial gerrymandering and segregation of voting districts. There’s no evidence that the Left needs more weapons in its arsenal; all that’s different in the post–Shelby County world is that now its lawyers have to prove racial discrimination before they can get court relief, which is the way that every other civil-rights law works.
    The second point: Much in the bill has nothing to do with Shelby County at all. Rather, the Court’s decision is being used as an excuse to enact the Left’s wish-list in voting policy. In particular, the Left wants to promote its plaintiffs’ lawyers to the status of the attorney general in making civil-rights enforcement decisions. All this is a standard demand for the civil-rights groups whenever they (deservedly) lose a case and run to Congress.
    The Left’s agenda is, of course, a decidedly color-conscious one. Thus, the bill itself features racial classifications, and offers protections for “minority voters” that it withholds from “nonminority” voters.
    Key provisions of the bill attempt to reinstate the “preclearance” provision of the Voting Rights Act by amending another section of the Act so that it is triggered even when there has been no constitutional violation, as is now required by that section. This raises the same sort of constitutional issue that resulted in the Shelby County decision in the first place, since Congress would again be acting to limit state prerogatives even though it lacks a constitutional predicate for doing so.
    What’s more, the new legislation is an attempt to ensure that the Voting Rights Act works principally as a “disparate impact” statute. This approach to civil-rights enforcement is favored by the Obama administration, as shown by its new school-discipline “guidance” this year. But that approach is not about stopping real discrimination; it’s about ensuring racial proportionality by eliminating legitimate standards and procedures.

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