Voting rights at issue in Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder

The History

voting rights act
Jurisdictions Covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 (during the Jim Crow era) to protect minority voters against discrimination and practices meant to make voting more difficult, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation at the ballot box.  The legislation gave the federal government, and specifically the Department of Justice, the right to review local voting procedures and monitor elections in certain states and Congressional districts with a history of discrimination.  Since the bill’s passage, it has blocked more than 1,500 discriminatory voting laws.

The Decision

Last week in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court — while acknowledging that voting discrimination is still alive and well in America — ruled that the criteria in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is outdated.  Section 4 is used to determine which districts should be subject to federal oversight.  Without a Section 4 formula to determine which states/districts are subject to the provisions of Section 5 providing special oversight, the Court in practice gutted the landmark law.

Now What?

States can now implement whatever voting policy they want without federal oversight, until Congress agrees on new criteria for which states or districts should be monitored.  The Court acknowledged there is still discrimination and did not rule on the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Act.  Therefore, Congress must act forcefully and quickly to update the coverage formula and ensure that voters in jurisdictions with current and persistent records of discrimination continue to be protected.  Congress proved in 2006 that preventing racial voting discrimination is a bipartisan goal when it renewed the Voting Rights Act by an overwhelming margin (by votes of 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House).

Why is this problematic?

The Court acknowledged that voting discrimination is still alive and well in America. Dozens of states, including Nebraska, are still trying to pass laws that make voting more difficult– whether through eliminating early voting periods, requiring only a few allowable forms of voter ID, ending same-day voter registration, or by not distributing enough voting machines, which results in long lines.  For example, according to the NAACP Voting Rights Initiative:

  • At least 362 restrictive bills have been introduced since 2011 (180 bills in 2011-2012 and 82 bills in 2013).
  • At least 82 restrictive bills have been introduced in 31 states since the 2012 election.
  • Of those, nearly 50 restrictive bills are still pending in up to 18 states.
  • Seven states have already passed eight restrictive bills this session.

While the Court’s decision to invalidate the formula is a setback, it is not the end of the fight.  Racial discrimination has no place in our democratic process.   It is time for all Americans to take this fight to Congress and ensure that every vote is protected.

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