Why the VRA matters

Today Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law one of the most draconian pieces of legislation destroying reproductive health to Texas women as Congress continues its hearings on the reinstatement of the Voting Rights Act.

Last month, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in an extreme act of hubris by a 5-4 vote. Roberts, in writing the majority ruling remains unclear as to which parts of the constitution were in violation of  the 40 year law that protected voting rights for African Americans, requiring several southern states (and some Northern districts) to be pre-cleared before implementing new voting rules. There’s no mention of the 15th Amendment in the majority decision for Shelby County v. Holder. The Court struck down Section 4 and Roberts, writing for the majority cites the enormity of African American voter turnout in 2012 election, proves there’s no need for the current formula to guarantee this protection, stating “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”

I think many of us know otherwise. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in her dissent so aptly notes,”Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Indeed. It’s the success of VRA’s protections that created a climate to ensure voter participation by African Americans in national elections.

Almost immediately, former pre-clearance states rushed to adjust their voting laws and policies. However, the Shelby decision has now charged Congress with scrambling to develop a new formula to reinstate VRA, one that means they must create an ‘equitable’ formula to block states from racial discrimination.

The Voting Rights Act repair is as much a feminist issue as it is a ‘black’ issue, an immigrant issue, and a class issue. National elections as we’ve witnessed in 2012 are threadbare close in certain districts; a single vote can tip the outcome and thereby affect national policy. Ohio, for example,  goes blue in 2012, supporting a democratic president and policy that recognizes the personhood of women, and enforces the constitutional rights of women, now becomes a target in continued voter suppression efforts by the GOP.

Several GOP controlled states legislatures seek to redefine voting laws from creating unnecessary voting ID laws to redrawing state electoral maps to limiting access and availability of voting hours. These are the same states that seek to redefine your constitutional right to choice. Texas has taken immediate measures to redefine voting laws. As Wendy Davis valiantly attempted to block SB5 (HB2) last month, we learn how VRA’s protections directly affected her district, and its gutting likely would mathematically remove her from office in the next election.

This is how I know the Voting Rights Act is a feminist issue.  For the past 11 weeks, a progressive front of North Carolinians have descended on the state capitol for what they’ve crowned as Moral Mondays, applying people pressure onto the legislative body that seeks to block reproductive rights for North Carolina women, implement new voting measures that could disenfranchise African American, poor, elderly people from the ballot box. Last month, Ohio passed a law skewering women’s reproductive rights.(And yes, Ohio was not a state covered in the Section 4b. of the Voting Rights Act formula for pre-clearance, but the aggressive efforts to redraw districts to break progressive and left leaning districts to levy conservative and far right votes as well as blocking or obstructing access to voting in Ohio is illustrative of how the conservative movements seeks to rig the game.) Yet districts redrawn to levy more conservative representation on the state and local level lead to a GOP controlled legislature and governor who actively seeks to block Ohio women of their constitutional rights. The list goes on.

2013 is not a major election year, but the chess pieces for the next two elections are in play NOW. I implore you to contact your congressional representatives to urge them to reinstate the Voting Rights Act. In the meantime, you must vote in every election. Every. Single. One. Your local and state elections are critical (maybe more so than the national election). Research which judges are up for appointments on the ballots. Volunteer to become a poll watcher. Donate $1 or $100s to legal action funds that challenge voter suppression efforts or rules that prohibit your individual right to the franchise. VRA may be weakened, and you may think it only affects African Americans, but it doesn’t. Its gutting should be a signal to you to take your civic responsibility very seriously. It’s what will enable you to have a state legislature  reflective of your values, or at the very least, acknowledge your own personhood and that you should be equally protected by the law, no matter where you live, or who you love, or your private decisions protected by the constitution. They forget that we read the constitution too.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

Syreeta McFadden is a contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and an editor of Union Station Magazine.

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