The Vote Is the Emblem of Equality -- and Now It is Under Attack

Ninety-three years ago this week, Carrie Chapman Catt founded the League of Women Voters to advocate for women's suffrage. A short time later, in August of 1920, following decades of advocacy, Chapman Catt, League members, and women across the country saw their dream realized with the passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. "The vote is the emblem of your equality, women of America," remarked Chapman Catt upon its passage, "the guarantee of your liberty... Understand what it means and what it can do for your country."

Yet today, 93 years after the League was founded to help democratize the right to vote, the voting rights of all Americans - or the "emblem of our equality"- are at deep risk. Later this month, the Supreme Court will review Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, a case that questions the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. Based on the 15th Amendment, which gave voting rights to people of color after the Civil War, the VRA ensures that every American citizen, regardless of race, has an equal right to vote by providing for effective enforcement. In its review of the VRA, the Supreme Court will focus on Section 5, which applies to specific states or jurisdictions with histories of discriminatory voting practices and requires that these jurisdictions obtain "preclearance," or federal approval, for proposed changes to elections laws.

Since our founding 93 years ago, the League of Women Voters has fought for voting rights and to ensure that our elections are fair, free and accessible to all eligible citizens. The VRA, with Section 5 in particular, is indispensable to that work. Should the Court rule against the VRA, millions of Americans could face disenfranchisement. That's why we've joined the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in filing an amicus brief in support of the VRA and Section 5. We firmly believe that for the Supreme Court to do anything but uphold Section 5 would be to turn back 50 years of progress by blocking effective enforcement of voting rights for all.

Since passage of the VRA, Congress has reauthorized Section 5 four times, most recently in 2006 when it held extensive hearings and released an over 15,000 page committee report that exposed large-scale evidence of voting discrimination, particularly in areas covered by Section 5. Not only did these findings lead to an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote to reauthorize the legislation, but Congress also cited the invaluable role of Section 5 in thwarting racial injustice. According to Congress, without the continuation of the VRA's protections, the evidence is clear that "racial and language minority citizens will be deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote, or will have their votes diluted."

Even as recently as this past election cycle, Section 5 helped block a number of proposed election laws that would have discriminated against minority voters. What's more as the Shelby case approaches, disenfranchisement and discrimination based on race remains a sad reality in our election system. Politicians across the country are waging widespread attacks on voting rights, including attempts to mandate restrictive voter ID laws that will limit voting access, redraw districts to maintain their power, and limit early voting options. In January, NAACP president Benjamin Jealous said the nation has been facing some of "the greatest attacks on voting rights since segregation," and the potential repeal of Section 5 is the biggest threat yet.

The Voting Rights Act is an essential part of American democracy.
The thought that the Supreme Court might overrule Congress and take away voting rights should send a chill down the spine of every American. Based on an extensive record of current discrimination, Congress reauthorized the VRA in 2006 and President Bush signed it into law. It would be wrong for the Supreme Court to challenge the role of Congress and the President in our constitutional system.

As the League celebrates our 93rd birthday and marks nearly a century of work on voting rights, we hope that the Supreme Court recognizes the importance of blocking racial discrimination in voting and upholds the Voting Rights Act. As our founder, Carrie Chapman Catt said, the vote is the "emblem of our equality," and we must do everything in our power to preserve it.