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Protecting the fundamental right of all Americans to have access to the voting booth

One of our most sacred rights in this country is the right to vote. Generations of Americans have fought in an enduring struggle to ensure meaningful participation in our democracy, opposed at every turn by the persistent backlash of anti-democratic forces.

I know this story well. My father, Dr. G. K. Butterfield Sr., an immigrant from Bermuda, was just the 40th African American to be registered to vote in my hometown of Wilson, N.C. When I was a toddler, he began organizing with the NAACP, leading voter registration drives for African Americans. He was the first African American elected to public office in our hometown. Following his election, the city abruptly changed its election rules to dilute the African American vote, which caused him to lose his office. My father’s experiences inspired me to become a civil rights attorney to protect voting rights and to, like him, work to register African Americans in North Carolina to vote. I spent considerable time litigating cases under the Voting Rights Act and presenting comments to the U.S. Department of Justice. I’ve seen firsthand the importance of the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.

I have also seen firsthand that despite our progress, there will always be the threat of those who wish to turn back the clock on voting rights in America. In the few short months since the 2020 election, in which voter suppression and efforts to disenfranchise were on clear display, state legislators have redoubled their efforts to curb access to the ballot, introducing 361 bills with restrictive provisions in 47 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. States are rushing to pass these bills, too: the Brennan Center notes that five have been already signed into law and another 29 have passed at least one chamber.

The Congress cannot stand idly by. Our duty to protect the right to vote for all eligible Americans is the same today as it was when the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965. That’s why Democrats in the House of Representatives have already acted in passing H.R. 1, the For The People Act, to begin the process of restoring our democracy and making it easier — not harder — to vote. This sweeping package of pro-democracy, anti-corruption reforms will immensely improve and revitalize our democracy. But we cannot stop there. In concert with H.R. 1, Congress also has an obligation to address discrimination in voting and to restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act — which has been gutted since the Supreme Court struck down portions of the 2006 Voting Rights Act reauthorization in Shelby County v. Holder, leaving American voters vulnerable to tactics of suppression and discrimination.

Writing for the majority in a 5-4 decision in Shelby County, Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged that “voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that.” However, the Court held that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional, and the coverage formula could “no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance.” Congress repeatedly reauthorized and expanded the protections of the Voting Rights Act on a bipartisan basis in the decades since 1965, including the 2006 reauthorization which was introduced by Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (Wis.), passed Congress with overwhelming majorities — including a 98-0 Senate vote — and signed into law by President George W. Bush. Yet Chief Justice Roberts held that “Congress—if it is to divide the States—must identify those jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense in light of current conditions.” In other words, Congress must provide contemporaneous evidence of voter suppression to support the establishment of a new preclearance formula.

At the outset of the 116th Congress, the Committee on House Administration’s Subcommittee on Elections, of which I was a member, embarked on a series of field hearings across the nation led by then-Chairwoman Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio) to survey the state of elections administration and voting rights in America. The Subcommittee gathered evidence from Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Dakota, Ohio, Texas, my home state of North Carolina, and across the nation, taking testimony from election administrators, voting rights advocates, litigators, tribal leaders, and voters to gather the contemporaneous evidence of voter suppression the Supreme Court asked of Congress. The Subcommittee found an array of tactics in place to suppress the votes of targeted communities. These findings informed a new preclearance formula in the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill passed by the House in December 2019.

Now, as chairman of the Subcommittee on Elections in the 117th Congress, I am mindful there is a new landscape for voting rights across the country, one that has been dramatically reshaped by COVID-19. In response to the deadly pandemic, many states adapted their voting procedures — giving voters more choices and more opportunities to vote. The 2020 turnout was the largest in our nation’s history and experts say it was also the most secure election. But now, across the nation, a reactionary effort to roll back progress and voting rights to serve baseless claims of voter fraud and “stolen” elections has the potential to dramatically change the laws governing our elections.

To meet the standard set by the Supreme Court, we must take this new landscape into account. The Subcommittee on Elections has already begun this important work, with an inaugural hearing conducted on April 1, 2021, “Voting in America: Ensuring Free and Fair Access to the Ballot,” in which we convened a panel of litigators, voting rights experts, and a state election official to examine the impact of suppressive voting laws already in place and under consideration around the nation.

Now, we must continue our work, gathering evidence from Americans involved in elections administration and those impacted by changes to their election laws. It is time we once again protect access to the ballot, rather than continuing to erect barriers that seek to suppress the votes and voices of communities. Through this process, we can work together to pass fair, commonsense legislation that restores and protects the fundamental right of all Americans to have unfettered access to the voting booth.

Butterfield represents North Carolina’s 1st District and is chairman of the Committee on House Administration’s Subcommittee on Elections.

Tags Early voting For the People Act Jim Sensenbrenner Shelby County v. Holder Voter suppression Voting Rights Act

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