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Debate over voter ID laws marks 50th anniversary of Voting Rights Act

On Tuesday, August 5, the day before the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, a U.S. appeals court struck down a Texas voter ID law, finding it discriminatory and in direct violation of the landmark civil rights legislation.

The American Civil Liberties Union celebrated. Meanwhile, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who has reported 50 cases of voter ID fraud in the state since 2002, said he was determined to fight the ruling.

“In light of ongoing voter fraud,” he said, “it is imperative that Texas has a voter ID law that prevents cheating at the ballot box.”

While election experts agree that voter fraud exists, many note it’s exceedingly rare. Others note that most cases of voter fraud happen with absentee ballots — for which voter ID laws make no difference.

Others, like South Carolina Senator Tim Scott says the uproar around voter ID laws is misguided: “You can’t get on a plane without showing who you are. You can’t cash a check without showing who you are. So why shouldn’t you have to show who you are when you vote?”

And back in Washington, Congressman John Lewis, who marched in Selma to Montgomery 50 years ago, has been urging his Republican counterparts to bring to the floor a bill that would restore the Voting Rights Act.

A landmark piece of legislation, the Voting Rights Act prohibits racial discrimination in voting. When it was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 6, 1965, it eliminated the poll taxes, grandfather clauses and literacy tests that had disenfranchised African Americans since the Reconstruction era. It was a turning point for the Civil Rights Movement. You can hear memories of the historic legislation here.

The Voting Rights Act has been renewed four times since with little fanfare, most recently in 2006, when Congress overwhelmingly voted to extend the law another 25 years.

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that a key provision of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. Those counties and states previously subject to federal oversight did not need federal approval to make changes to their voting laws or practices. In 2013, eight states passed voter ID laws, pointing to cases of voter fraud, while others argued that voter ID laws disproportionately hurt minorities voters.

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