If voting is at the heart of the democratic process, activists from the United Church of Christ want to do everything in their power to protect that right and empower voters, instead of creating more obstacles in the process. One such obstacle arose on Tuesday, June 25, when the Supreme Court of the United States struck down part of the landmark Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional, something UCC leaders say could be a hindrance to the democratic process.
"Today's Supreme Court decision upholding a challenge to Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is a deeply disappointing reversal in the work to ensure a fair and just democratic process for all," said Sandra Sorensen, the director of the UCC's office in Washington, D.C.
"The Voting Rights Act has proven to be one of the most important and effective components of civil rights legislation," Sorensen added. "It is deeply troubling that the Court would act to curb its impact when a robust democracy is needed more than ever."
In the decision, the court ruled that a specific section of the VRA is unconstitutional and cannot be used since the map does not reflect "current conditions" of voter discrimination. The slim majority of the court – via a divisive 5-4 ruling – based the ruling on the fact that Section 4 of the VRA violates the Constitution's guarantee of equality among the states.
The court examined Sections 4 and 5 of the VRA, which was passed in 1965 by Congress to prevent discrimination of voters in parts of the country with a history of voting discrimination. Section 4 lays out a formula that maps which state and local governments have a history of racial bias. The VRA's Section 5 clause required those state and local governments to notify Washington, D.C., to any changes to voting laws.
Proponents of the ruling claimed that parts of the Voting Rights Act are no longer necessary because of the progress made in addressing discriminatory voting practices. Sorensen counters that point by saying that the work is far from over.
Though the court didn't strike down the law entirely, it became significantly crippled. Although Section 5 remains constitutional, it is ineffective unless Congress can develop a new formula to map which parts of the country to which it pertains.
"Now is certainly not the time to curb essential voting rights protections under the law," Sorensen said. "We need look back no further than the 2012 election cycle to see that serious threats to voting rights continue. Indeed, the last two years saw the greatest rollback in voting rights in over 100 years – in the form of strict voter identification requirements, restrictions in the voter registration process, and limits on the availability of early voting. Long waits in lines at the polls, voting machine breakdowns and threats of voter intimidation during Election Day 2012 are evidence that the work for voting rights is as important as ever."
The UCC's General Synod has long supported voting rights and addressing obstacles to participation in the electoral process within the broader context of the civil rights struggle. The General Synod witness around voting rights is grounded in the understanding that justice cannot be achieved unless the rules governing the democratic process are fair to all.
Sorensen said that "for years UCC members have spoken out on the importance of the right to vote, and have advocated for the protection of that essential right, through the Our Faith Our Vote campaign."