Wednesday, while most of America was consumed by issues of marriage equality, an important motion was made on the floor of the House. Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) offered an amendment to the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2013 that would have barred the Justice Department from using any funds to enforce an important law--Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Rep. John Lewis led the charge against the Broun Amendment, castigating his colleague for even presenting an amendment which would have the affect of disenfranchising millions of Americans. He spoke to the history of struggle, pain, and even death surrounding the fight for the right to vote in America, suggested that perhaps people who are unaware of voting rights history become better educated about the problems that still exist, as well as the history, and said he felt it was reprehensible that a member from Georgia, a state where violations have been deemed to occur as recently as the election of 2010, should offer such an amendment.
The Chairman of the Appropriations Committee Commerce, Justice and Science subcommittee, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) spoke out against the amendment and registered his support for Section 5 as did Sanford Bishop (D-GA), Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL), Chaka Fattah (D-PA) and others. The backlash was so severe, that Rep. Broun decided to withdraw his amendment and apologized for any disrespect.
The Voting Rights Act was passed after violence ensued on March 7, 1965, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama when marchers, led by Hosea Williams and John Lewis, then a leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, sought to demonstrate impediments to African American access to the ballot box. The Voting Rights Act outlawed certain abhorrent and divisive practices like grandfather clauses and literacy tests, but included a Section 5 which protects against modern-day devices used to impede the right to vote.
Section 5 requires that states or jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory practice voting law changes reviewed by the Justice Department, called pre-clearance, to insure that those laws are not violations of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Many Republicans argue that compliance is burdensome and punitive, and they have repeatedly constructed measures to challenge the constitutionality of the act as well as to find ways to nullify its power. The last Supreme Court challenge to the VRA was upheld in 2009, but heard another case earlier this year.
Section 5 of the act requires periodic reauthorization in order to allow the VRA to address new challenges to voting rights in America. Reauthorization often engages extensive congressional hearings and field hearings to determine the continuing need for the act. In the last reauthorization in 2006, evidence was clear in state after state, including the state of Georgia
Without Section 5, the only recourse discriminated groups would have is to mount legal cases to defend against voting discrimination. These are costly, long-term actions which allow discriminatory law to remain in force until the law is finally struck down. If the VRA is nullified, there will be no other law in place to protect voters from new discriminatory voting practices.