U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) met with Queens community leaders and elected officials on Friday to urge congressional leaders to pass bipartisan legislation this year to restore the Voting Rights Act.
This past June, the U.S. Supreme Court made a controversial amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by striking down Section 5, which determines which states and localities must get federal approval before they change their voting rights laws.
“This was a terrible blow to our nation’s commitment to voting rights,” Gillibrand said in the Queens Borough Hall conference room. “Voting rights are one of the most sacred rights we have as Americans and there is no doubt that this decision has jeopardized it.”
The Voting Rights Act was written into law at a time when racial tensions and segregation were resulting in unfair requirements of minority voters, as a way to even the playing field. In the June 5-4 decision, the judges ruled that requiring certain states to seek approval before changing a voting law is unconstitutional and no longer needed.
“This is not some esoteric decision from some faraway place,” Gillibrand argued. “It has implications right here in Queens. Yes, New York City has come a very long way since the 1960s, but challenges still remain.”
Gillibrand said that from 1990 to 2005, the city had to withdraw four dozen proposed changes to its voting procedure after the Justice Department demanded more details.
“There is a common misconception that Section 5 only caters to minorities in the South, but we have used this to provide fully translated Chinese ballots in New York City,” said Jerry Vattamala, a staff attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “Section 5 has been crucial for Asian Americans to protect their right to vote. We are a nation of laws and laws need to be followed.”
To counter the court’s decision, Gillibrand is backing the Common Sense Act that she says will ensure equal access and crack down on alleged voter suppression. It will also make registration more accessible by authorizing automatic, same-day online voter registration.
“Martin Luther King often spoke about the fierce urgency of now,” Gillibrand said. “Now is the time to protect voting rights battles that we have already won and to press forward for new protections. Instead of putting new burdens on voters, our bill looks to protect. Instead of looking for votes to throw away, our bill guarantees that every vote will count.”
Gillibrand and Vattamala were joined with Borough President Helen Marshall, New York State NAACP President Hazel Dukes, Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills), and Mazeda Uddin of the Alliance of South Asian American Labor, who all echoed the senator’s urgency.
“We are here to protect the rights of all Americans regardless of when they got here or how they got here; we want them to be part of this great nation,” Dukes said. “Section 5 will guarantee that the votes of Americans are protected. Racial discrimination has no place in our democracy or in our voting process, so senator, we got your back.”