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Saturday, Nov 22, 2014
Commentary

Court ignores history of expanding rights


Published:

The U.S. Supreme Court, in striking down a central provision of the Voting Rights Act, hammered a stake into the heart of a law that's been used to guarantee fair elections in this country since 1965.

Now, it's unfortunately left up to a dysfunctional and highly partisan Congress to fix the law. And if I had my way, we'd already be working on it.

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to protect everybody's right to vote.

In a nutshell, it required states with a history of voter suppression to get approval from the federal government before making changes to their voting laws. For nearly five decades, these states had to show why a change in their voting laws or practices was necessary and demonstrate how that change wouldn't harm voters.

But the Supreme Court - by a 5-4 vote - gutted that law saying a part of it was outdated.

In so doing, the highest court in our land rendered the law void until Congress comes up with new criteria to be used in determining which states and localities have to get federal approval in advance of voting changes.

Unfortunately, voter suppression is alive and well in this country. It may not be as blatant. But it happens and, in my view, is more stealthy, sophisticated and just as pernicious as ever.

Leading up to the most recent elections in 2012, 15 states passed restrictive voting laws and executive actions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

One of those states was my home state of Florida.

The right to vote has not always been given to all Americans. Black men didn't have the right to vote until after the Civil War. Then women won their right to cast a ballot in 1920. And minorities such as Latinos didn't get voter protections until the mid-1970s.

In rejecting the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court ignored our country's history of expanding fundamental rights - not making it more difficult for citizens to obtain them.

Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, is Florida's senior U.S. senator.

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