The Voting Rights Act must be updated

Lynn Westmoreland's picture

Everyone agrees that the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was desperately needed when it was passed in 1965. But that was nearly 50 years ago.

Since its passage, we have seen dramatic changes across the country, especially in the South, that points to the fact that the VRA needs updating.

Georgia has four African-American Members of Congress and some of the highest minority voter turnout in the country. In fact, in November 2012, a higher percentage of registered African-American females turned out to vote than registered white females or males.

I’m not the only one who has noticed our changing times. In 2009, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder expressing their concerns.

Chief Justice Roberts, joined by the nearly-unanimous Court, stated that the VRA “now raises serious constitutional concerns” and that it “differentiates between States in ways that may no longer be justified.”

They did not go so far as to find Section 5 unconstitutional, but urged Congress to modernize it.

Yet three years later, Congress has done nothing, still feeling the need to punish certain areas of the country for the sins of their fathers and grandfathers. To put in perspective just how outdated this law is, people who became eligible to vote the year this law was passed became eligible for Medicare last year.

Congress had a chance to update this law in 2006 when it came up for reauthorization to make sure it remained constitutional. By 2000, African Americans in pre-clearance states like Mississippi and South Carolina were registering in higher rates than whites.

In our home state of Georgia, we had 582 African American elected officials by 2000 – up from 30 in 1970. And in Mississippi, a state with one of the worst problems in the 1960s had 897 African American elected officials by the year 2000 – up from 67 in 1970.

That is proof of real change and why I pushed so hard to update the VRA in 2006 when it came up for reauthorization. But my pleas to update the coverage formula to reflect more recent elections and to require the federal government provide modern examples of discrimination in pre-clearance states fell on deaf ears.

And now seven years later, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court is calling into question the coverage formula and why certain states are subject to Section 5 over others – the exact constitutional concerns I raised in 2006.

We no longer suffer from the voting rights issues we saw in 1965 that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. If the Supreme Court overturns Section 5, it will not weaken the positive impact the VRA had on our country nor would it diminish the importance of the Civil Rights Movement. It would simply update an outdated law and acknowledge the progress that has been made since 1965.

[Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-3rd District) was first elected to Congress in 2004 and currently serves on the House Financial Services Committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He lives in Grantville.]