This photo shows a by-mail ballot sent to an Alaska voter in October. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

This photo shows a by-mail ballot sent to an Alaska voter in October. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Opinion: Voter rights in jeopardy — then and now

Unless we have voting rights equity for all, we can neither have nor maintain our democracy.

  • Monday, October 26, 2020 11:06am
  • Opinion

By carolyn Brown

Voter rights have had serious and burdensome barriers throughout history in the United States. Why does this matter? It mattered a lot then and it matters a lot now.

With passage of the Voting Rights Act, 1965 became a pivotal year for America’s journey to provide equal voting rights for all citizens. Specifically, Sections 4 and 5 of the VRA applied to specific states that had maintained barriers to voting. It is to be noted that Alaska was one of these states. The other states included Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.

In 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that portions of the VRA were unconstitutional. The named states became subject to voting “pre-clearance requirements” and specific remedies if changes for voting in those states were to be enacted. “Coverage formulas” were put in place for registering to vote, for voting and as protection from the designated infringements.

A brief review of specific Amendments referable to citizenship and voting will be useful to appreciate why these actions were taken. After ratification of the United States Constitution (1785), five Amendments that attempted to deal with some aspect of citizenship and voting were added. These included:

— 14th. (1868). Persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens. Men over 21 years of age with citizenship and no history of “rebellion or committing a crime” could vote. Slaves were no longer counted as 3/5 of a person. Native Americans were not included as citizens and therefore could not vote.

— 15th. (1870). Right to vote could not be denied based on race, color or previous servitude. Women were not included for this right.

—19th. (1920). Women won the right to vote. Black women continued to face many barriers in southern states.

— 24th. (1964). Poll tax payments required for voting were prohibited.

— 26th. (1971). Right to vote was provided all citizens 18 years of age and older

A major change occurred in America in 2013. In their decision for Shelby County vs Holder, the SCOTUS eliminated sections of the VRA. This opened the door to further inequities against citizen justice and voting. To their credit, the SCOTUS left open the opportunity for Congress to “modernize” the “pre-clearance processes” to deal with further barriers against registration and voting with new legislation. Congress has taken no action on this issue since 2013.

Fast forward to 2019. The Voting Rights Enactment Act (VRAA) of 2019 established new criteria for determining which states and political subdivisions must obtain federal approval before new or different voting practices could take effect. That legislation passed the House (December 2019).

To honor Congressman John Lewis and his iconic work for civil rights, the VRAA was renamed the John Lewis Voting Rights Enactment Act (S. 4263) and introduced in the Senate in July 2020. No action has been taken to date.

The VRAA legislation will establish results-based standards and violation identification with appropriate action to be taken. It will further provide needed voting review and increased transparency and accountability for the 14th and 15th Amendments within election processes.

Unless we have voting rights equity for every eligible citizen, we can neither have nor maintain our democracy. Our sense of justice requires that we participate in passage of this legislation.

It is to be noted that Senator Lisa Murkowski has supported this VRAA 2019 legislation. Sen. Dan Sullivan has not supported this legislation.

We have work to do if justice is to be served. We can do our part by contacting our senators. We can vote our voice and our ballot.

• Dr. carolyn V. Brown resides in Douglas. Brown is a member of the League of Women Voters Juneau and Alaska and a former board member of the National League of Women Voters.

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