American voters, numbed by the nonstop coverage and political advertising of the 2012 election cycle, are awakening to the reality that 2013 may be a make-or-break year for voting rights. Not one, but two critical voting rights cases will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court this year. The Court's decisions will set the framework for election efforts for decades to come. In the meantime, state legislatures across the country are already considering new laws to restrict voting rights. The president has created a Commission narrowly focused on long lines at the polls. In an uplifting move, proposals are pending in Congress that would standardize election laws across the country and make voting more accessible.
Voters need to be aware of the various implications of these events in order to stand up and demand that voting rights be protected. Every American deserves an equal right to vote and in every state and locality across the country, elections must be free, fair and accessible.
The first crucial test comes this week when the Supreme Court hears arguments in the case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. At stake is the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), the landmark legislation that outlaws racial discrimination in state voting practices, and its critical enforcement mechanism. The VRA is essential to our democracy and, since its initial passage, has been reauthorized over and over again, with strong bipartisan support in Congress. Most recently in 2006, Congress considered 15,000 pages of testimony and voted overwhelmingly that the law's protections are still needed in the state and local jurisdictions covered by Section 5. President George W. Bush unhesitatingly signed the bill into law.
Now, the Supreme Court is poised to overrule Congress, substituting its will for that of our elected representatives. With the problems in our election system exposed once again in 2012, the Court should be enforcing voting rights, not taking them away. Over the years, Section 5 has been used to prevent over 2,400 discriminatory changes to voting laws and was indispensable in protecting voting rights in several states just last year (PDF).
The thought, then, that the Voting Rights Act could be overturned by the Court should send a chill down the spine of every American. The VRA has been one of the most important gateways for voter enfranchisement in the modern era, helping to transform the American democracy from a restricted, segregated past to one of remarkable inclusion. With the onslaught of anti-voter legislation in many states, it is clear that we still need the VRA and Section 5 to keep our elections free, fair and accessible.
Just weeks after arguments in the Shelby case, the Court will take up Arizona v. Intertribal Council and decide whether the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) prevents states from restricting the voter registration process for an ever more mobile electorate. One of the primary purposes of the NVRA was to increase participation in federal elections by overriding burdensome state registration laws, such as Arizona's requirement for documentary proof of citizenship. The potential impact of this case on voter registration is significant. Approval from the Supreme Court for state restrictions on voter registration would undoubtedly put that issue in front of state legislatures. Already, several states have sought to restrict voter registration, and we can expect others to try if given the green light by our nation's highest court.
The importance of these cases simply cannot be overstated. Already, 2013 holds tremendous opportunity to reassert and protect our nation's fundamental belief that every American has an equal right to vote and that those rights are essential to our great democracy. At the same time, 2013 also has the potential for being a notorious year in which we are dealt some of the greatest blows to vital civil rights protections ever known to this country.