WASHINGTON (CN) — Testifying before House lawmakers about barriers minorities face in exercising their right to vote, the reputed mother of the Civil Rights Movement took aim Wednesday at a Supreme Court decision that gutted the federal law her activism helped secure in 1965.
“I do not believe for one second that they really thought the provision was no longer needed, as Justice Roberts wrote,” said Diane Nash, referring to a section of the Voting Rights Act struck down as unconstitutional in 2013 by conservatives on the high court. “We knew the result would be gerrymandering and voter suppression, and those five justices knew it also because they are as smart as you and I.”
The Voting Rights Act provision eliminated in Shelby County v. Holder had been a preclearance requirement that forced certain districts to seek approval from federal authorities before changing election procedures.
Chief Justice John Roberts called the requirement outdated in his opinion for the 5-4 majority, but Democrats in Congress contend that states with a history of discrimination have used its absence to change their voter-eligibility laws in ways that “echo past tactics” to deny black Americans the vote.
Nash in the 1960s had been one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a youth wing of the movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. that used sit-ins to protest some of the same tactics. Appearing this morning before the House Oversight Committee, Nash said Congress must act before the 2020 elections to restore the protections that minority voters lost after Shelby.
Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., pointed to examples in Georgia, where more than 500,000 voters found themselves purged from the rolls prior to the 2018 midterm elections, and Texas, where counties have moved polling locations to remote sites.
North Carolina adopted one of the country’s most restrictive voter ID laws just months after the Shelby decision, but the Fourth Circuit struck down the requirements in 2016 with a ruling that said lawmakers had targeted African-Americans “with surgical precision.”
Republicans at Wednesday’s hearing meanwhile denied that voter discrimination was on the rise, saying election officials have a responsibility to ensure honest elections.
Representative Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., accused the witnesses of making inflammatory arguments about the dangers of voter ID laws. He said dozens of other countries in the world mandate that voters demonstrate citizenship to prevent cheating at the polls.
But the claim drew swift reprisal from Timothy Jenkins, another Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee founder to testify today.
Jenkins accused the congressman of trying to introduce irrelevancies, saying the GOP’s arguments “have no bearing on the United States Constitution and the way in which people should be guaranteed the right to participate in their government.”
With a presidential election just months away, Jenkins and the other activists said the issue is urgent.
“We have staked our lives,” Jenkins said, “based on our faith that this country must uphold the intentions to continuously strive to ‘form a more perfect union’ and establish justice.”