Although spring has just begun, before we know it fall will be here and so too will the midterm elections. If Congress doesn’t act now to restore the foundation of the Voting Rights Act, thousands of Americans may be deprived of one of their most fundamental rights – the right to vote.
Last summer, the Supreme Court tossed nearly 50 years of solid legal precedent aside when it gutted the seminal 1965 Voting Rights Act. This is a vital concern to Asian Americans—Congress must act with urgency and purpose to restore the protections of that legislation and remedy this injustice.
By invalidating a key part of the historic Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court effectively removed proven safeguards intended to prevent discrimination in voting on the basis of race and language. We are at a critical crossroads now in advancing bipartisan federal legislation – the Voting Rights Amendment Act (VRAA), introduced by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The VRAA would provide new and modern safeguards to ensure everyone enjoys the right to vote. Unfortunately, a hearing on the bill, much less a vote, has yet to be scheduled.
The restoration of voting rights protections is an important issue for all Americans but particularly for Asian Americans, who are acutely aware of the implications of reverting to election practices of the pre-Civil Rights era. For most our nation’s history, Asian Americans were denied their constitutional right to vote.
Before 1952, we were not allowed to become citizens and, therefore, had no recourse to change such xenophobic policy. The Voting Rights Act was the next critical step in our community’s drive to become full and equal citizens. That law ensured that states and jurisdictions did not use racist, discriminatory and unfair processes to erect barriers to voting.
Certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act specifically protect voters who are not fluent in English. That is critical to a community such as ours where 60 percent of our population is born outside the U.S., almost three out of four speak an Asian language at home and one in two adults has trouble speaking English.
We need a modern and effective Voting Rights Act to maintain and protect the progress our community and other disadvantaged communities have made since 1965.
To address the Supreme Court’s ruling, the VRAA provides a nationwide standard for the original “preclearance” system that would only apply to states and jurisdictions with proven, recent voting law violations.
It would also inform communities of proposed voting changes to increase transparency and give federal courts more power to weed out discriminatory voting policies.
As Americans we would like to believe that we have overcome our checkered past and that such laws are no longer necessary. However, as Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged in the Supreme Court’s decision, we have modern example after example of how voting discrimination still persists.
As Congressman Sensenbrenner wrote recently: “The belief that no voter should be disenfranchised and every legal vote should be tallied is nonpartisan.” We look to all members of the Congress to take the critical step to provide needed safeguards that match 21st Century conditions, before the upcoming elections.
Mee Moua is president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC, a leading Asian American civil rights organization located in Washington, D.C.