While pundits continue chattering about the meaning of this month’s election, one debate should finally be put to rest: We need a fully restored Voting Rights Act. When a 5-4 Supreme Court majority gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act last year, civil rights leaders warned it would lead to widespread disenfranchisement and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously derided her colleagues’ decision as, “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Well we got more than a rainstorm — we got a flood. This was our first national election since the Court dismantled the law, clearing the path for several states to pass restrictive voting laws ahead of this fall’s election. And what did we see? A steady stream of disturbing reports of disenfranchisement pouring in to voter protection hotlines, civil rights organizations, and the media — a torrential flood of disenfranchisement that may very well have impacted the results in some competitive races.
Texas, which passed a strict voter ID law, was widely criticized for failing to make required IDs easily accessible to the estimated 600,000 registered voters who needed them to vote under the new law. The day before the election, MNSBC.com published a disturbing field report pointing out that Texas’ promises to make IDs accessible were contradicted by many reports from citizens who still didn’t have them despite, “Herculean efforts,” to navigate the state’s bureaucracy. In September, a U.S. District Court Judge slammed the state’s voter outreach efforts, noting that Texas had only issued 279 IDs by the end of August. The bottom line? Texas failed to ensure that legitimate voters could cast ballots.
In North Carolina, state leaders completely eliminated the more accessible forms of voting popular with African Americans: early voting days were decreased, same-day registration was eliminated and voters were no longer able to vote outside their home precinct. According to the Brennan Center, in 2010, “200,000 voters cast ballots during the early voting days now cut,” and in 2012, 100,000 voters voted using same-day registration. The margin of victory in that state’s Senate race, one of the races that decided the control of Congress? 48,000 votes.
Long lines, confusion over proper ID, cuts in voting opportunities. These might sound like pesky inconveniences we face every day at the doctor’s office or DMV — but when we’re talking about voting, they add up to a moral crisis. And this crisis is about more than waiting time and paperwork. It’s about whose voice counts in our society. When our courts call unlimited corporate spending on elections free speech even as vast numbers of Americans are being robbed of their basic right to cast a single vote, what does that say about the state of our nation’s values?
It says that it’s time to put our nation on a correction course. The American Jewish community, of which we are proud to be part of, cares deeply about the right to vote. That’s why many of us lobbied for Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act before this year’s election. But, Congress failed to act. Now that the rainstorm Justice Ginsburg forecast has soaked us all, we must recommit to holding our leaders responsible for protecting the right to vote. That’s why we’ve joined with more than one thousand other Jewish, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim clergy and faith leaders from all fifty states to call on Congress to pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 during the lame duck session. As Congress returns to Washington, we’ll be watching to see who is committed to democracy and who is cynically welcoming the unfair playing field that disproportionately disenfranchised people of color this election.
Passing the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 must be a top priority for this Congress — and it presents an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to show they can work together. Members of Congress from both parties already came together earlier this year to propose this forward-looking bill. While Congress failed to pass it in time to protect voters during this election, it’s not too late to stop these problems from returning to haunt us. By passing this bill, Congress would restore the federal government’s power to vigorously protect the right to vote. To be sure, the bill isn’t perfect. It’s a compromise and many hoped for stronger protections. But there’s another flood coming — with the potential for even more voters being disenfranchised in next year’s local elections and the presidential election in 2016 — and this legislation is an important opportunity for bipartisan compromise that will help voters stay dry.
Stosh Cotler is CEO of Bend the Arc. Rabbi Menachem Creditor is a Bend the Arc leader and the rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom, in Berkeley, Calif.