By Aswad Walker
This past June 24, coming off the heals of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the longstanding Roe v. Wade decision and Justice Clarence Thomas threatening to overturn other SCOTUS progressive rulings, Houston Congressman Al Green issued a proactive call to protect one of Congress’ most important pieces of legislation of the 20th century — the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Defender spoke with Green, the latest national lawmaker to issue the call for the Voting Rights Act to be reauthorized. Here is what he had to say on the matter.
Defender: Why do you contend the Voting Rights Act should be reauthorized?
Congressman Al Green: The Voting Rights Act (VRA) needs to be reauthorized because it is one of the most impactful pieces of legislation for expanding voting access to have been passed by the United States since the passage of the 15th Amendment, which recognized the right of former slaves to vote. When the VRA passed in 1965, Congress only had four Asian members, four Latino members, six Black members, and 13 women members. Today, Congress has 21 Asian members, 52 Latino members, 61 Black members and 151 women members, much closer to a representative distribution than prior to the VRA. This change has occurred mainly because of the VRA.
The VRA needs to be reauthorized because our country is not beyond the era where oversight of states’ voting practices is no longer needed. Oversight was once required for States with a history of attempting to disenfranchise voters. Federal overseers had to approve any voting change in these states, ensuring a fair system for everyone. But today, the VRA isn’t just in danger of being further damaged; it has already had a significant portion of its power destroyed.
In 2013, the Supreme Court held in Shelby County vs. Holder that the section of the VRA dictating which states had to undergo preclearance of their voting law changes was unconstitutional because the coverage formula was based on data that was more than 40 years old.
This means that currently no state is required to have its voting practices precleared. If the coverage formula were updated with new legislation, the VRA would return to its full pre Shelby County vs. Holder strength.
Defender: Who authored the measure to repeal and not authorize the Voting Rights Act?
Green: The primary threat to the VRA comes from radicals in the Republican Party who want to see it eliminated. During the 2022 Texas State Republican Convention, the Texas Republican Party voted to make repealing the VRA a part of their platform.
Defender: What are the potential ramifications if it is not reauthorized?
Green: Without the protection of the VRA, communities of color would likely lose representation at all levels of government. States with a history of invidious discrimination could easily create voting laws that would make it more difficult for people of color to vote.
Defender: How does this reauthorization happen with the current D.C. gridlock and President Biden refusing to end the filibuster?
Green: President Biden cannot alone enact filibuster reform. Two members of his party have expressed that they are not interested in eliminating the filibuster. I am hopeful that we might get more individuals in Congress that are interested in pushing Democratic priorities, especially the reauthorization of the [VRA].
Defender: What actions can citizens take to make this happen?
Green: Legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives is currently pending in the Senate to reauthorize the section of the VRA that the Supreme Court struck down. Passage of H.R.4 – John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 and H.R.5746 – Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act would accomplish this goal. To help get this legislation passed, citizens can organize and vote for candidates committed to protecting democracy.
The Voting Rights Act of 1865
It is important to distinguish the year (1965) when discussing the Voting Rights Act because Blacks were initially granted legal protections to vote not only via the 15th Amendment, but the Voting Rights Act of 1865, passed by the 39th Congress (1865–1867).
That’s right; 100 years before the Voting Rights Act 1965, the one that most people point to as the so-called origins of Black voting in America, existed the real frontrunner.
Voting Rights Act of 1865: This act opened the door for Black males to vote. The act was part of a series of U.S. laws that paved the way for Blacks to go to the polls and exercise their rights as citizens to cast their ballots for the candidates of their choice.
Civil Rights Act of 1866: Declared that all persons born or naturalized in the U.S. were citizens and that any state that denied or abridged the voting rights of men over the age of 21 would be subject to proportional reductions in its representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Voting Rights Act of 1869 (which became known as the 15th Amendment): An amendment to the Constitution that placed Black voting in one of the nation’s founding documents.
Enforcement Act of 1870: This law prohibited discrimination by state officials in voter registration on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude and established penalties for interfering with a person’s right to vote and gave federal courts the power to enforce the act. It made it crystal clear, at least on paper, that Blacks were protected by law to vote in this country.
Why a 1965 Voting Rights Act was needed
Between 1865 (the year the Civil War ended) and 1877 — a 12-year period of time known as the Reconstruction Era — more than 1,500 African American officeholders served at the state and federal levels. This is because when the laws were on the books allowing us to vote, we voted in percentages higher than white voters.
However, in a land founded upon the erroneous notion of white supremacy, it is no surprise that putting an end to Black voting was a priority. That came with the end of Reconstruction.
Thanks to the Compromise of 1877, the informal agreement between southern Democrats and allies of the Republican Rutherford Hayes to settle the result of the 1876 presidential election, Hayes removed Union troops from the south and reinstated members of the Confederacy (traitors who went to war against the U.S.) to power. This meant white domestic terrorism was unleashed on Blacks without restraint. The result? Blacks did not gain access to the polls again until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
With this history of Black voting power being steadily attacked, even when the rights were encoded in law, it’s not hard to see why there have been calls over the past few years, especially during the four years preceding the Biden/Harris administration, for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to be reauthorized.
The recent SCOTUS Roe v. Wade decision, for some, served as a wake-up call and reminder of other “rights” that were tenuously given and can very realistically be taken away.