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Tolson testifies on Voting Rights Act before Congress

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

USC Gould Vice Dean and Prof. Franita Tolson presented her research on voting access to members of the House Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C.

By Matthew Kredell

Vice Dean and Prof. Franita Tolson testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee - Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. (Photo by Allison O'Brien) More photos from the testimony available on Flickr »

In September, USC Gould School of Law Prof. Franita Tolson testified with a group of leading law scholars from around the nation at a Congressional subcommittee hearing on restoring key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.

Tolson, who is USC Gould’s Vice Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs, presented her research on broadening access to the right to vote to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee - Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

“[The legislators] had a lot of great questions about crafting a coverage formula for the Voting Rights Act that can stand up to judicial scrutiny,” Tolson said. “To me, the Voting Rights Act is one of the most important civil rights acts in history. I was honored to be invited to talk about how to preserve it.”

Under the VRA, Congress required certain states and local governments with histories of voting discrimination to obtain federal pre-clearance before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practices. In the Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the VRA section containing the coverage formula that determined the jurisdictions subject to pre-clearance.

In his opening remarks, Rep. Jamie Raskin, who chairs the subcommittee, lamented a new generation of voter suppression tactics in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder.

“While voting rights are a central part of our national narrative and self-understanding, continuing efforts to deny the vote and block suffrage rights for excluded groups have been as much a part of our history as the proud exercise of the franchise by those who enjoy it,” he said.

Tolson is greeted by members of Congress (from left) Jamie Raskin, Sheila Jackson Lee and Ben Cline. (Photos by Allison O'Brien) Watch highlights of Prof. Tolson's testimony

Safeguarding voting rights of ‘vulnerable communities’

Tolson has written about the Voting Rights Act for more than a decade. Her forthcoming book, In Congress We Trust?: The Evolution of Federal Voting Rights Enforcement from the Founding to the Dawn of the Progressive Era, will be published in 2020 by Cambridge University Press.

“The VRA is at the core of my research and personally important to me as well, as an African American whose family is from the South,” Tolson said. “The Act is vitally important in making sure that people of color have access to the structures of power in this country, and I am trying to do my part to protect the voting rights of the most vulnerable communities.”

In order to restore this provision of the VRA, Congress must enact a new coverage formula for pre-clearance that would satisfy the Supreme Court as not being an impermissible burden on the constitutional principles of federalism and equal sovereignty of the states.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA) was introduced this year to that end. The VRAA introduces a process to determine which states must clear, in advance, election changes with the Department of Justice, and will require nationwide preclearance of known discriminatory practices such as the elimination of polling locations.

Tolson testified that she believes Congress has significant authority over elections via the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution to enact a new coverage formula.

“The overarching purpose of the Clause is to ensure the continued existence and legitimacy of federal elections, so the text empowers Congress to engage in the quintessentially anti-federalism action of displacing state law and commandeering state officials towards achieving this end,” Tolson told the committee.

Tolson said she hoped her testimony helped clarify the power Congress has, via the Elections Clause, to oversee the elections process, and that the VRAA can address objections the Supreme Court raised in Shelby County v. Holder.

“I really wanted the committee to understand that Congress has substantial authority over elections, and it’s important for Congress to be transparent about which provisions provide constitutional support for the VRAA,” Tolson said. “It’s easy for the Court to ignore legitimate sources of constitutional authority if Congress doesn’t mention them in enacting legislation.”

Tolson expects it could take several years and a new administration for Congress to restore and bolster the VRA.

“It was a unique opportunity to talk to people who have the power to do something about the things that I care about,” Tolson said. “They are actually positioned to implement my recommendations.”

Video from Tolson's testimony is available online »



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