Civil Rights Advocates Ask Congress to Protect Voting Rights

May 28, 2021 by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON — Civil rights attorneys advocated for an update to the federal Voting Rights Act Thursday as the uproar instigated by former President Donald Trump over fair elections continues to create turmoil in Congress.

They blamed outdated language in the 1965 federal law for allowing states to circumvent its ban on racial discrimination in voting.

“It is the biggest legislative assault on voting since Reconstruction,” said Wendy R. Weiser, vice president for democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice public policy foundation.

She was referring to the 361 voting rights bills that have been introduced in 47 states since the November federal election.

They were largely a response to Trump’s allegations that the election was stolen from him through voter fraud, which his critics call “The Big Lie.”

Weiser testified before the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties as it weighs proposals to set national standards for voting rights, thereby removing much of the state discretion.

Most of the state legislative proposals put greater restrictions on absentee voting, use of ballot drop boxes or require government-issued identification with photos before a resident can vote. Advocates of these proposals state that they make elections more secure and reduce voter fraud.

Civil rights advocates say the new restrictions fall hardest on low-income voters and persons of color, many of whom lack photo ID or cannot get away from work to vote during business hours.

“Many of these bills clearly target persons of color,” Weiser said.

A dozen states already have enacted the laws.

One of them is Georgia’s Election Integrity Act of 2021, which imposes voter identification requirements on absentee ballots, limits the use of ballot drop boxes, expands early in-person voting, bars state officials from sending out unsolicited absentee ballot request forms and makes it a crime for outside groups to give food or water to voters waiting in line.

After the Georgia General Assembly approved the law in March, a New York Times editorial said it “will, in particular, curtail ballot access for voters in booming urban and suburban counties, home to many Democrats.”

President Joe Biden called the Georgia law “Jim Crow in the 21st century.”

This month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a similar law. It places new restrictions on ballot drop boxes and residents’ ability to vote by mail.

The governors in states like Georgia and Florida say any efforts in Congress to limit their authority over elections would violate Article I, Section 4, of the U.S. Constitution, which says “the times, places and manner of holding elections … shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof…”

They also draw support from the 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, in which the Supreme Court eliminated many requirements for states to seek permission from the federal government to alter their voting laws.

Most lawmakers and witnesses at the congressional hearing Thursday said constitutional rights intended to guarantee freedom from discrimination mean the federal government should override state discretion.

Rep. Deborah Ross, D-N.C., said if laws suppress voters’ access to elections, “You are saying they are not worthy of full citizenship.”

Jon M. Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said that unless the Shelby County v. Holder ruling is modified, “I really think democracy is at risk, serious risk right now.”

However, Rep. Michelle Fischbach, R-Minn., recommended against too much federal control over state elections. Instead, the federal government should “assist states in enhancing voter protection,” she said.

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