This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- a legislative landmark that enfranchised millions of African Americans and other minorities systematically excluded from participation in American democracy.
However, the VRA in place today -- or what's left of it -- lacks the full power to protect minority voters that it had for most of the past half-century. In Shelby County v. Holder, the Roberts Court effectively gutted Section 5 of the VRA, an essential component requiring pre-clearance of voting changes in states and jurisdictions with a record of discriminatory practices. Justice Roberts proclaimed in Shelby, "Our country has changed." But the onslaught of recent voter suppression laws tells a very different story.
One of the central questions facing voting rights advocates post-Shelby is how to restore the VRA's full scope of protections. Recent voting legislation in the states offers evidence of both the need to restore the VRA's protections for minority voters, as well as progress toward building modern, more accessible state voting systems.
Since Republicans' sweeping state takeovers in 2010, 21 states have enacted restrictive new voting laws that disproportionately create barriers for minority, youth, elderly and other groups of voters.
Voting rights advocates are pushing back against voter suppression laws in states like North Carolina and Texas, where the cases could reach the Supreme Court. They are citing Section 2 of the VRA, which prohibits voting practices and procedures that discriminate against minority voters in all 50 states.
Litigation challenging voting laws in those states -- both of which had been subject to Section 5 preclearance -- has revealed evidence that conservative legislators acted with clear intent to suppress minority voters, who largely vote against them. In North Carolina, legislators voted to restrict voting procedures such as early vote, same-day and pre-registration after they were shown to be heavily used by African American and Latino voters.
In another state, Pennsylvania, where voter ID was struck down by the courts early last year, a GOP legislative leader publicly boasted that a voter ID requirement would deliver his state for Mitt Romney in 2012.
Justice Roberts wrote in Shelby that the enduring existence of Section 2 negated the need for Section 5 preclearance. Given the discriminatory intent and impact of North Carolina's, Texas' and other states' restrictive voter laws, it's clear that our country's treatment of minority voters hasn't changed nearly enough since August 6, 1965.
While there is little prospect of congressional action on strengthening the VRA in the near future, there has been a growing trend of state legislation building modern, more accessible voting systems signaling hope for breaking down some barriers to minority voters and other segments of the electorate.
For the third year in a row, more states enacted legislation expanding voting access than restricting it. States like Colorado, Oregon and California have excelled in the movement to modernize election systems with significant changes, such as automatic mail ballots and, in Oregon, automatic voter registration.
This year, states like Florida, New Mexico and Indiana also took important steps forward by enacting election modernization laws with strong bipartisan support. America Votes was deeply engaged in the push for online registration in Florida and New Mexico, where state and local officials from both parties strongly supported online voter registration. Their motivation was simple: registering to vote online makes it more accessible, efficient and accurate.
Seeing bipartisan support in states this year for online registration and other laws expanding early voting, rights restoration and Election Day registration is very encouraging. Building modern election systems should not be a partisan issue. It embraces widely used technology and the realities of today's world to expand voting for our younger, more diverse electorate, and makes the process simpler for election administration officials.
But while election modernization has helped break down barriers, it won't fix the gap in protections for minority voters. We can't have a truly modern voting system if our voting rights laws lack the power to stop states from enacting 21st Century equivalents of poll taxes the VRA was intended to prevent.
The Shelby decision and voter suppression laws cast an inevitable shadow on the 50th anniversary of the VRA, but not all is lost. We still have opportunities to work through state legislatures to look past partisanship and make voting more accessible. And while Congress continues to stall on restoring the VRA's full protections, the courts must fully enforce the remaining Section 2 protections for minority voters that endure under that landmark legislation.