Photo by Rich Bockmann
By Rich Bockmann

With the 50th anniversary of a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights era weeks away, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) made a stop in Queens last week to urge her colleagues in Congress to restore a key element of the movement’s legislation that was nullified by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.

“This is not some esoteric decision from some faraway place,” the junior senator said at Borough Hall Aug. 9. “It has implications right here in Queens.”

In June, the court essentially gutted Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required certain jurisdictions to receive federal pre-clearance for changes that could possibly disenfranchise voters, such as redistricting and moving polling places.

While noting that pre-clearance was still relevant, the court ruled that Section 4 of the act, which contains the formula used to identify which jurisdictions are covered by Section 5, was out-of-date and unconstitutional. That put the impetus on Washington, D.C., lawmakers to come up with a new formula.

Gillibrand said a committee in the U.S. House of Representatives was expected to come out with a new proposal within the next few weeks and contended it is imperative Washington pass legislation in this session.

“We will answer the charge of the Supreme Court,” she said, “because it is untenable that these protections are not in place.

“With the 2014 congressional elections on the horizon, time is very much of the essence,” she added. “We can’t afford to wait.”

While Queens was never identified under the Section 4 formula, the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn were added in 1975 after a literacy test was shown to have disenfranchised minority voters. But because it shared the same election plans as its neighbors, the borough was covered under the pre-clearance protection.

The Voting Rights Act was one of the hallmarks of the Civil Rights era, which reached a turning point with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on the Capitol and his “I Have a Dream” speech Aug. 28, 1963.

“I know firsthand from 50 years ago the progress we’ve made since the march on Washington,” Hazel Dukes, president of New York’s NAACP conference, said alongside Gillibrand. “We remember when we didn’t have any African Americans or Latinos in any of our elected offices in New York City or in the Senate or in Albany or in Washington, D.C.”

Gillibrand noted that Section 4 had most recently been reauthorized in 2006 with bipartisan support in Congress and said that protecting voters’ rights is something both sides of the aisle can get on board with.

Borough President Helen Marshall, citing her experiences as chairwoman of the state Assembly Election Law Committee, had a different perspective on the political workings.

“All the Democrats want to open up the process; all the Republicans want to close it,” she said.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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