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OPINION

The struggle to vote continues

The real solution is simple — Congress must reinstate the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.

Voters in Georgia's June primary reported wait times of four or more hours.
Voters in Georgia's June primary reported wait times of four or more hours.John Bazemore/Associated Press

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it was a major step toward securing the protections of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing every American the unabridged right to vote. Yet 55 years after its passage, restrictions on access to the franchise continue to suppress the ability of African Americans (Editor’s note: While the Globe and hundreds of other media organizations have adopted the term Black Americans, the Subcommittee on Elections uses African Americans and that term will be used here for the purposes of this op-ed.) and other racial minorities, language minorities, students, the elderly, and persons with disabilities to fully participate in the electoral process.

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The battles of the 1950s and ’60s are yet to be won. The Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder gutted the Voting Rights Act, invalidating the coverage formula by which states and jurisdictions with a history of pervasive discrimination were required to preclear election changes with the Department of Justice to ensure those changes were not discriminatory. Almost immediately, states began enacting suppressive laws, creating barriers to the ballot box. Since then, more than three-fifths of the states have passed laws making it harder to vote. The progress promised in 1965 was severely undercut by the Shelby decision, and as we prepare for the 2020 general election amid a pandemic, we are forced to recognize once again that voter suppression exists and is growing.

As chair of the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections, I’ve heard directly from voters, advocates, litigators, elected officials, and experts at hearings held in Texas, Georgia, North Dakota, North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, Alabama, Arizona, and Washington, D.C. More than 70 witnesses, and a record of several thousand pages, clearly showed that voter suppression is thriving in precincts across the country, particularly in African American, Latinx, Native American, and Asian American communities.

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For example, we learned in Brownsville, Texas, how voter ID laws and polling place changes and closings still disproportionately burden Black and brown communities. In North Dakota, we heard that some Native American voters are forced to vote in chicken coops and police stations, evoking fear and intimidation. In Washington, D.C., members of the Asian American community shared their nationwide struggles with a lack of access to multilingual ballots and assistance during elections. In Ohio, a county with nearly 1 million registered voters has only one early voting site, with 30 parking spots. The resulting long lines and wait times often deter voters.

In November 2019, a report of the subcommittee’s findings confirmed an urgent need for congressional intervention to protect the rights of American voters. Federal preclearance is necessary to protect Americans before they are disenfranchised. The Voting Rights Advancement Act, ensures that protection. Although passed by the House in December 2019, it still languishes in the Senate with no vote in sight.

Compounding the concerns regarding voting rights is the coronavirus pandemic, which has impacted primaries around the country and will do the same in the general election. We need look no further for examples of the pandemic’s impact on elections than the Wisconsin and Georgia primaries. Wisconsin’s April primary highlighted a number of problems, beginning with holding the election during a statewide stay-at-home order. Fewer polls were open due to the lack of poll workers. Many Wisconsinites did not receive their requested mail-in ballot in time to safely cast their vote, and there was voter confusion caused by executive orders and court decisions that resulted in constantly changing deadlines, procedures, and requirements, even on the day before the election.

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Georgia’s June primary saw much of the same and more. In parts of Atlanta, lines snaked around the block, and people reported waiting four hours and more to vote. A Subcommittee on Elections hearing in June found that many states experienced similar issues.

States cannot afford to be as unprepared for full participation in voting as they were this spring. Congress must ensure the safety and fairness of elections now and long after the pandemic is over.

To prevent chaos and confusion, and preserve the safety of voters and poll workers, Congress included $400 million in the CARES Act, passed in March, to help states plan for voting amid this pandemic through methods such as increasing vote-by-mail access, expanding early voting and online registration, as well as ensuring poll workers have the supplies they need to keep themselves and voters safe.

The House went a step further and passed the HEROES Act in August. This bill provides $3.6 billion in funding to state and local election officials to ensure voters have access to more early voting opportunities and no-excuse absentee balloting, and are provided prepaid postage for all registration, ballot applications, and absentee ballot materials, among other things. The Senate has the bill but again has taken no action. Additionally, Congress must pass legislation like the VoteSafe Act, which I co-introduced. It would guarantee accessible elections during health emergencies for people with disabilities, language minority voters, African American, American Indian, Alaskan Native, and rural voters.

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These are positive first steps toward preventing voter suppression and disenfranchisement. But the real solution is simple — Congress must reinstate the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.

Despite imperfections, America is great because of her ability to repair her faults. Denial of participation in our democracy to one person, one group, or one people is a profound erosion of our country’s greatness. We must live up to the promise of America, eliminate voter suppression, and ensure all eligible citizens enjoy the free, unfettered right to vote.

Representative Marcia L. Fudge, of Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, chairs the Subcommittee on Elections of the Committee on House Administration.