The president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is staging a sit-in at the Roanoke office of Virginia congressman Bob Goodlatte to demand a hearing on the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law 51 years ago on Saturday.
Nearly 30 protesters occupied the Republican’s office on Monday morning, demanding that Goodlatte, as chairman of the House judiciary committee, convene a hearing on the Voting Rights Act.
“People bled, sweated and died for the right to vote,” Cornell Brooks, the NAACP president, said in a phone call from Goodlatte’s office. “Why can’t Congress conduct a hearing on the right to vote? All we’re asking for is a hearing. It’s not radical.”
For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act stood as one of the most important legal achievements of the 1960s civil rights era. In 2013, the US supreme court struck at the heart of the 1965 law in a 5-4 decision that allowed nine states, mostly in the south, to make changes to electoral rules without approval from federal authorities in Washington.
The prevailing justices argued that while racial discrimination persisted, it was no longer sufficient to justify what they called “extraordinary measures” against the southern states. The states included Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
Civil rights activists were deeply disappointed by the ruling, and have been at the forefront of fighting a surge of voter identification laws which have passed in some of the nine states, which they say amounts to voter suppression and targets racial minorities.
“You can vote with an ID that allows you to carry a concealed weapon, but a card that allows you to carry a book of Shakespeare or a textbook does not allow you to vote,” Brooks said, expressing frustration that in some states a handgun permit, but not a library card, can be presented as identification at polling booths.
Last month, a federal court struck down a North Carolina voting law that it said had been enacted with “discriminatory intent” and targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision”. This followed a similar decision by the notoriously conservative fifth circuit court of appeals that found Texas’s stringent voter identification law had a discriminatory impact that breaches US voting rights law.
The back-to-back rulings came as a sweeping victory for voting rights activists and the US Department of Justice, which had challenged the restrictive voting laws. The states could appeal the rulings to the supreme court.
Stephen Green, the NAACP’s national director of youth and college division, who is also at the protest, said the police had arrived at the congressman’s office but there were no arrests.
“We’re here to raise the moral consciousness and push for the strengthening of the Voter Rights Act,” Green said. The protesters are calling for a hearing in order to make their case against restrictive voter identification laws.
“It is clear there is racial intent to suppress the right to vote,” Green said, referring to the recent appeals court decisions in North Carolina and Texas.
Green said the group intended to remain in the office until Goodlatte appeased their request for a hearing. If the congressman does not agree to hold a hearing, he said, they anticipate arrests.
A representative from Goodlatte’s office did not return requests for comment.
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