Ohio’s leading experts in voting rights and civil rights urged U.S. Senator Rob Portman Thursday to join them in support of shoring up the Voting Rights Acts (VRA). If the needed changes are not made, this will be the first presidential election in half a century where voters lack the full protections of the VRA.
“Election 2016 is looming and Senator Portman is just sitting on the fence. We need to update the Voting Rights Act as soon as possible,” said Gregory T. Moore, Senior Adviser to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Director of the Ohio Voter Fund.
Moore joined about 20 supporters outside Portman’s Columbus office as part of a multi-state effort organized by the Leadership Conference to mark the third anniversary of Shelby v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court decision which gutted core components of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The high court took issue with a provision that relates to “preclearance,” which is a requirement for states and cities with a history of racial discrimination to get federal permission before they could change their voting rules. The court tossed out that requirement, saying that since the 1965 act passed, “Our country has changed.” The court did not rule the VRA unconstitutional or conclude that voting discrimination no longer exists – only that the preclearance formula needs to be updated for modern times.
“Once the full protections of the VRA were removed, states across the country wasted no time unveiling new voter suppression measures,” said Mike Brickner, senior policy director with the ACLU of Ohio. “Voting is the foundation of our democracy, and we cannot allow this critical election year to come and go without robust protections in place to ensure access to the ballot.”
Although Sen. Portman markets himself as a supporter of voting rights and civil rights, he has refused to take a position on legislation to fix the VRA. Last year, while in Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights struggle that helped pass the act, Portman was asked about the legislation. His response: “I haven’t looked at it. Is there a Senate version?’’ Last March, he told the Cincinnati Enquirer, “We ought to have a review of the legislation generally. I’m willing to be part of that process. (But) I really haven’t had a chance to review it carefully.’’
Sandy Theis, Executive Director of ProgressOhio and leader of the Why Courts Matter Ohio Coalition, said, “Ohio voters demand and deserve more than photo ops and platitudes from Sen. Portman. They deserve answers on where he stands on this important issue.’’
Some who attended the event held signs featuring a photo of Portman with a forked tongue that said, ‘’Which side of his mouth will Rob Portman speak out of today?’’
Camille Wimbish, an election law expert with the Ohio Voter Rights Coalition said, “Sen. Portman has had three years to tell us where he stands. The voters deserve an answer – especially since the need for voting rights protections has skyrocketed over the last three years.’’
Wimbish provided statistics showing that in 2014, 21 states had new voting restrictions in place. In 2015, 17 states introduced 40 new voting restrictions. She also noted that Republican and Democratic administrations worked with Congresses to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act in full for many decades. In a speech to the NAACP, President George W. Bush, thanked members of the U.S. House of Representatives for reauthorizing the VRA and urged the Senate to take up the legislation. Then-House Speaker John Boehner, a Cincinnati-area Republican, praised the VRA as “an effective tool in protecting a right that is fundamental to our democracy.”
“Unfortunately, after the Shelby decision, bipartisan support for restoring the VRA has dwindled,” Wimbish said. “With the November 2016 election less than six months away, it’s even more critical to have the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.’’
Tom Roberts, Political Action Chair of Ohio Conference of the NAACP, called the right to vote “one of the most valuable, and scared constitutional rights granted to most Americans.’’ There is still time, he said, for Congress to enact another formula to redress voting discrimination based on the “current data reflecting current needs’’ called for in the Shelby case.
“I’m asking our members of Congress, and Senator Portman specifically, to pass legislation that addresses the court’s directive. I encourage Senator Portman to support a proposal that is uniform, in that it protects against voter discrimination anywhere in the country,’’ Roberts said.