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Unfriendly Congress, Supreme Court threaten voting right

By Jazelle Hunt/NNPA Washington Correspondent
On August 25, 2015

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at the Voting Rights rally in D.C. August 6.
Credit: youtube/bernie2016

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, civil rights groups and leaders, union representatives, elected officials, and citizens gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to address the threats to voting rights earlier this month.

“We stand here today with two missions: To celebrate the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and to recommit ourselves to making sure that the victory won 50 years ago will not be wiped away by a Supreme Court that has shown us supreme disrespect by gutting a key section of the Voting Rights Act,” said Charles Steele, Jr., president and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which co-sponsored the rally. “The illegitimate reason for this action is that it’s all about politics … where people figure if they can suppress 10 to 15 percent of the Black vote, they can steal an election.”

Section 4 gave the voting law teeth; it provided an objective measure for discriminatory practices, and flagged the states that had discriminated against Black voters. Section 5 mandated that these flagged states could not change voting procedures without first clearing the proposed changes with the U.S. Justice Department or a federal judge in Washington. The states could be exempted from such requirements upon proving they no longer discriminated.

Two years ago, in a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court found Sections 4 and 5 unconstitutional. The conservative majority ruled that the measure, based on practices and data from the 1960s, was no longer relevant in today’s racial and political climate.

Two hours after the ruling, the Texas attorney general authorized a voter ID law that the Justice Department had previously blocked as a civil rights violation. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, 22 states passed new voting restrictions in time for the 2014 midterm elections.

Voting faces other challenges as well. Thanks to felony disenfranchisement laws, six million Americans cannot vote – 13 percent of Black men fall into this gap, which is seven times the national average, according to the Brennan Center. States with a Republican majority in the State House are also closing polling locations, chipping away at early voting, and redrawing district lines to dilute the voting power in communities of color.

Two 2016 Democratic presidential candidates were present at last week’s rally in the shadow of the King Memorial on the Mall, and both expressed strong disapproval of this current state of affairs. No Republican candidates attended.

“Anybody who is suppressing the vote, anybody who is intentionally trying to keep people from voting – because that candidate knows that people will vote against him or her – that person is a political coward,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “That person is undermining American democracy.”

Democratic candidate Willie Wilson, a Chicago businessman, talked about the difficulty of long-shot candidate participating in the political process.

“When I ran for mayor of Chicago … it cost me more than $200,000 just to get on the ballot. When I finally got on … 50,000 people, my supporters were told they weren’t on the [registered voter] roll. When I am denied, you are denied.”

This year marks several major anniversaries in the struggle for Black rights, including the 150th anniversary of emancipation, the 50th anniversary of the Watts riots, and the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, which helped make the Voting Rights Act a reality.

This month, the NAACP kicked off its historic, 860-mile “America’s Journey for Justice” relay march from Selma to Washington, D.C.

Noted activist and comedian Dick Gregory spoke at length on voting rights, his activism, and the perils of American racism.

“We built everything, now we’re going to ask them for some bull—-? They reduced us, and we believed it,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here now had I not seen people willing to die for this Voting Rights Act. We still have that same power.”

Two bills aimed at repairing the damage by the Supreme Court are pending in Congress: the Voting Rights Amendment Act and the Voting Rights Advancement Act.

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