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News from EPI Fifty Years After the March on Washington, the Struggle for Voting Rights Continues

Congress should act to ensure that the goals of the Voting Rights Act are fulfilled.

Fifty years after the March on Washington, the future of voting rights is uncertain, according to a new Economic Policy Institute paper from Lawyers’ Committee’ President and Executive Director Barbara Arnwine and Voting Rights Project co-director Marcia Johnson-Blanco. In Voting Rights at a Crossroads, the authors examine the ongoing struggle for voting rights 50 years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, as a part of EPI’s Unfinished March project.

Arnwine and Johnson-Blanco review the struggle for voting rights for African Americans, starting with the passage of the 15th amendment, continuing on through the civil rights movement and the passage of the VRA, up to this year’s landmark Supreme Court decision, Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. The paper notes that the VRA has yielded remarkable results, through litigation under Section 2, which outlaws voting discrimination nationwide, as well as and the preclearance requirements in Section 5. The authors note that one area in which the VRA has not been successful is in addressing the disproportionate impact of the nation’s felony disenfranchisement laws on minorities.

“When Barack Obama was elected president, many pundits prematurely heralded the arrival of a post-racial America,” said Arnwine. “But since then, we have seen voting rights eroded by the Supreme Court’s decision opening the door to states passing restrictive voting laws. It’s clear in the wake of Shelby v. Holder that the quest for full voting rights continues.”

The authors conclude that Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision striking down the preclearance coverage formula and thus halting the enforcement of Section 5 of the VRA, imperils African Americans’ hard-fought access to the ballot. The ruling makes way for restrictive voter identification laws that threaten the franchise of African American voters nationwide.  Notably, in the wake of Shelby, restrictive laws are now in effect in states such as Texas, Florida, and Alabama threatening the gains of the past 50 years.

“The civil rights community and the public must now apply a heightened level of vigilance to ensure that all eligible voters have ready access to the ballot,” said Johnson-Blanco. “Citizens must become engaged in their communities and hold elected officials accountable. Attempts to roll back hard-fought gains will not be tolerated.”

EPI’s Unfinished March project reviews America’s civil rights successes as well as the significant amount of civil rights work that remains to be done. This paper is one of nine reports written by some of the nation’s leading experts. Each report addresses a specific civil rights goal, the progress that has or has not been made, and, if necessary, the policy measures needed to fully realize the goal.