About 50 people gathered in a crowded room at Greater Bethel A.M.E. Church on Wednesday morning to hear a 10-member panel of community and government leaders discuss why, in the aftermath of Arizona's March 22 presidential preference election, the U.S. Congress must restore the Voting Rights Act before the general election in November.
"Let's make clear what happened [in the primary] — there was voter suppression," declared U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, who co-chaired the forum with Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick.
"Was it intentional? We can't say at this point. But we know for a fact there were hindrances to voting ... and none of this would have occurred had we had the Voting Rights Act in place," he added.
"What we witnessed was absolute voter suppression," agreed Alex Gomez of Living United for a Change in Arizona (LUCHA), "and we need to restore federal oversight."
After sharing horror stories about the presidential preference election — from voters who had to wait in line for five hours to voters who arrived at the polls only to learn they had inexplicably been registered as an Independent — the panelists turned to solutions.
The unanimous sentiment was that amending the Voting Rights Act is the single most important thing the nation can do to prevent future election fiascos.
As New Times outlined earlier this week, the VRA was passed in 1965 to stop states from systematically disenfranchising voters. Section 4 of the legislation, often considered the heart of the VRA, included a formula for identifying states or counties with a history and pattern of discriminatory voting practices. Arizona was added to the list in 1975.
Those on the list were required to get "preclearance," or advance approval, from the federal government before changing any election protocols, and states were no longer allowed to require literacy tests or to gerrymander districts to suppress certain voting blocs.
Even though the VRA was considered a huge success — the U.S. Department of Justice called it "the single most effective piece of civil-rights legislation ever passed by Congress" — it had its critics. And in a 2013 case, Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court ruled that the formula in Section 4 is unconstitutional and that it is Congress' responsibility to fix it.
Fast-forward three years. While 17 states have passed some sort of voter-restriction law since the last presidential election, Congress has failed to repair Section 4.
It hasn't been for lack of trying.
"Some bills are on the floor, and some are even bipartisan," Gallego noted. "There is a path to do this ... We need to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act."
If the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015, otherwise known as HR 2867, becomes law, states and/or subdivisions will be placed on the preclearance list for 10 years if they're found to have had 15 or more voting-rights violations in the past 25 years.
Panelist Debora Colbert, who works on Gallego's African American Advisory Council, called the bill "vital."
Said Francisco Heredia of Mi Familia Vota: "Arizona is a leader in disenfranchisement. We need to not only restore, but strengthen the Voting Rights Act."
HR 2867 was introduced in June of last year and has 178 cosponsors, including Gallego, Kirkpatrick, and Rep. Raul Grijalva of Tucson. It was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, but no action has been taken, a fact many panelists blamed on Congressional gridlock.
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Panelists disagreed about whether the March debacle was the result of incompetence or discrimination, but all concurred that systematic voter disenfranchisement is a serious problem and will be again come November unless Congress takes action.
"This is real throughout the country, and it's extremely important that we pass legislation [to fix it]," said civil-rights attorney Daniel Ortega Jr. "Preclearance was the vanguard."