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The Voting Rights Act Revisited

Nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder. This case is about whether the federal government can continue to require some states, counties, and cities to request approval or “pre-clearance” from the Justice Department for alterations to their voting laws or congressional maps.

The states, counties, and cities which are required to request “pre-clearance” have been designated as such based on their history of voting discrimination and are covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and includes jurisdictions primarily located in the South, as well as several counties in New York.

As a woman of color who witnessed the re-election of our nation’s first black president, and the U.S. Representative for the new Ninth Congressional District of New York, I am deeply concerned that a Supreme Court decision to overturn Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder could undermine the right to vote for people of color across the nation.

My district includes many sections of the historic Twelfth Congressional District that was created in response to widespread voting discrimination practices during the 1960s. I have the privilege of being in the succession of the Honorable Shirley Chisholm, who originally represented the district and was the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Without the Voting Rights Act, it would have been highly unlikely that President Barack Obama, Shirley Chisholm, and I would have had the opportunity to be successful in electoral politics. I believe that we all have a moral obligation to preserve and protect these rights for the good of our nation which requires diversity among the women and men elected to city, state, and federal office.

The necessity of the pre-clearance requirement has been demonstrated – again and again – by the efforts of several southern states such as Alabama, to implement strict voter identification laws that are intended to prevent Black and Latino voters from casting ballots. The culmination of the pre-clearance requirement places at-risk the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement in allowing people of color to participate in our democracy. Gains in ballot access made sure our ballots were cast and counted – these ballots are our voices in the democratic process.

I join my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus in reaffirming the necessity of the pre-clearance requirement under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act which allows the full participation of all Americans in our civil society. The ability to vote is not a privilege but a right that must remain intact for future generations.