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While the U.S. Supreme Court sent a shockwave of joy through Southern California last week with its Prop. 8 decision, it also angered waves of civil rights leaders with its Voting Rights Act ruling.
Last Tuesday, in Shelby County v. Holder, the court determined that portions of the act were unconstitutional, allowing certain jurisdictions with histories of voter exclusion to no longer be required to receive pre-approval before implementing voting changes.
The decision was lamented at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s (MALDEF) national headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, where MALDEF officials and Rev. Jesse Jackson denounced the decision.
Jackson said the ruling will make it more difficult for Latino-Americans and African-Americans to vote and pursue elected office. He said the country needs federal and Constitutional protections for voting.
“The integrity of America is at stake,” Jackson said, adding that advocates must remedy the situation through litigation, legislation and demonstration. “The integrity of democracy is at stake. The president must act and act quickly. …We cannot stand idly by and lose our protected right to vote. We must move forward.”
Now 48 years old, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed to address “entrenched” racial discrimination in voting, “an insidious and pervasive evil which had been perpetuated in certain parts of our country through unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution,” according to Justice John Roberts’ court opinion.
The original legislation was set to expire in five years, but has since been reauthorized multiple times, most recently in 2006. The act’s coverage formula, which determined what jurisdictions were subject to pre-clearance, has not changed in many years and still uses a voting test created in the 1960s or ‘70s, Roberts wrote. He stated that the tests use facts that have “no logical relation to present day.”
Jackson referenced Roberts’ argument that the South is doing very well in terms of following federal decrees and electing minority candidates.
“It is [doing well], because of oversight,” Jackson said.
He gave a brief overview of the country’s history of providing voting rights to citizens, a battle that has been ongoing for centuries.
“Let us not forget, in the quest for the right to vote, blacks and Latinos lost lives together, shed blood together,” Jackson said. “It’s been a long fight to democratize democracy.”
Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, was equally disturbed by the decision, saying that the court has temporarily disabled “one of the most powerful civil rights tools ever deployed by our federal government.”
He said Congress and President Barack Obama must address “this deplorable decision” by taking steps to protect the right to vote.
“Congress should prohibit the most egregious practices currently in use to deter those eligible [and] ensure that powerful tool is again useable in preserving the right to vote,” Saenz said, adding that three California counties were subject to pre-clearance.
Saenz and Jackson also discussed and denounced the Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin on June 24. Saenz said the court preserved an existing test for affirmative action programs in university admissions.
“That test has long failed to recognize the critical importance of educational equity in the pipeline in kindergarten through 12th grade,” he said, adding that it is “inconceivable but true” that the court did not discuss the issues of equity. “In response, Congress and the president must enact a new elementary and secondary education act that focuses on eliminating, through strong accountability measures or systems, the so-called achievement gap — really an education gap faced by African Americans and Latinos because of long-prevailing and continuing equity problems in providing resources and education and producing education outcomes for these two communities.”
Saenz said the court’s decisions demonstrate a need to reinvigorate and recommit at the federal level to addressing voting and education access. Jackson agreed, and asked rhetorically why so many African Americans and Latino Americans excel at sports.
“The fact is the inherent justice allows us to make it,” he said, adding that thousands of attempts have been made to restrict the right to vote since 1965. “The playing field is even, and the rules are public, and the goals are clear, and the referees are fair. When the score is transparent, we can make it.”
If that is the case, Latinos and African Americans will also be champions in voting and education, Jackson said.
Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.) could not be reached for comment before deadline, but as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, she issued a statement in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“I’m very disappointed to learn of the court’s decision … striking down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” she said. “People of all races, religions and backgrounds joined together and fought for that law because every one of us deserves a fair shake and a fair chance at achieving our version of the American dream. The right to vote gives us the power to take our future into our own hands and the court’s decision … undermines this very important principle. The ruling ignores significant evidence of continuing racial discrimination and efforts to interfere with the rights of minority voters. Congress must now act and pass legislation to ensure the right to vote is protected for every American.”
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