Chairman Durbin and Ranking Member Grassley:
My name is Joni Madison and I am the Interim President of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) people. By inspiring and engaging all Americans, HRC strives to end discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and realize a nation that achieves fundamental fairness and equality for all. On behalf of our more than 3 million members and supporters, I am honored to submit testimony for this important hearing on the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
Democracy necessarily demands full and free civic participation. For centuries, access to the ballot box has served as a beacon for the health of our republic. Concerted efforts to exclude the voices of our most diverse communities succeeded for generations, perpetuating a cycle of racial and social injustice that we still grapple with today. Even as the franchise has expanded to include people of color, women, and young people, the effects of systemic and structural discrimination continue to present significant barriers to voting.
The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) and its later amendments provided relief from some of the most blatant discriminatory ploys. Under this landmark legislation, states could no longer enforce literacy tests, nor deny equal opportunity to citizens wishing to participate in
our democracy. Voter turnout surged. Just twenty years after its passage, the gap in registration rates between black and white voters narrowed drastically, dropping from almost thirty percentage points to eight. In Mississippi alone, voter turnout within the Black community increased from 6% in 1954, to 59% in 1969.
For decades, the VRA remained our nation’s most robust defense against discriminatory voting measures, though the 2013 Shelby County ruling by the Supreme Court demonstrated just how fragile that defense was. In a devastating 5-4 decision, the Court gutted the critical enforcement
measures that held states accountable for proposed voting legislation and in doing so, opened the floodgates for a tidal wave of voter suppression.
We are still underwater. Today’s voter suppression tactics have replaced the literacy tests and poll taxes of the Jim Crow era. Modern suppression efforts take the form of polling site closures, purges to voter rolls, and facially-neutral laws designed to make voting more difficult. These laws are especially harmful to voters of color, and those from the LGBTQ+ community, who are more vulnerable to discrimination now than at any time since the Voting Rights Act was signed into law more than 50 years ago.
There is no doubt that we are once again in immediate need of a federal solution to protect our most vulnerable communities from discrimination at the ballot box. Many in the LGBTQ+ community, and especially LGBTQ+ people of color, endure and fear discrimination while accessing the right to vote. A 2019 HRC Foundation survey found that fear of or experiencing discrimination led 22% of LGBTQ+ adults, 35% of LGBTQ+ adults of color, 49% of transgender adults, and 55% of transgender adults of color to avoid voting in at least one election in their lives. That same survey discovered that an issue with meeting voter identification requirements prevented 24% of LGBTQ+ adults, 35% of LGBTQ+ people of color, 42% of transgender people from voting in at least one election in their lives. Furthermore, 46% of transgender people of color said they did not vote in one or more elections in their lives specifically because their ID had an incorrect gender marker, name, or photo.
Congress must act swiftly to restore the crucial protections once provided by the VRA and it can begin by passing the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA). This transformative legislation does exactly what the Supreme Court has asked legislators to do and more—it modernizes the VRA’s preclearance formula and pushes us one step closer toward ensuring every American is guaranteed their constitutional right to vote.6 Additionally, the legislation ensures that last-minute voting changes do not adversely affect voters by requiring officials to publicly announce all voting changes at least 180 days before an election and expands the government’s authority to send federal observers to any jurisdiction where they may be a substantial risk of discrimination at the polls on Election Day or during an early voting period.
The bill is a fitting tribute to Congressman John Lewis, a dedicated civil rights icon and tireless advocate of social justice. It is our hope that his legacy will continue through the passage of this monumental legislation and in the delicate rebuilding of our electoral systems.
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