On Tuesday the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by a 5-to-4 vote. The decision effectively invalidates Section 5, the hallmark provision of the Act, ruling that states with particularly aggressive histories of disenfranchising African Americans and other people of color no longer have to achieve pre-clearance from the Department of Justice to change any of their voting laws. The vote was split along ideological lines, with the conservative-leading judges voting to strike down Section 4 and the liberal-leaning judges voting to uphold it.
Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, claimed that the 1965 provision was unconstitutional under “current political conditions.” According to Roberts, “no one can fairly say that [the record] shows anything approaching the ‘pervasive,’ ‘flagrant,’ ‘widespread,’ and ‘rampant’ discrimination that clearly distinguished the covered jurisdictions from the rest of the Nation in 1965.”
Alas, racism is fixed! So long as we’re better off than we were in the 1960s, when Civil Rights leaders and activists fought, and sometimes died, for equality, federal laws that ensure that all citizens of every race and ethnic origin have safe and equal access to the democratic system are obviously irrelevant.
And yet “the record” does not support Justice Roberts’ conviction that things are getting better, or at least are good enough. In fact, many attempts at voter suppression from the recent past attest to the idea that discrimination remains incredibly rampant. To look back at these attempts it’s also clear that many attempts at suppression are best stopped through the pre-clearance policy.
According to Justice Ginsberg’s dissenting opinion, between 1982 and 2006 the Department of Justice “blocked over 700 voting changes based on a determination that the changes were discriminatory.” She lists the following examples:
1. In 1995 Mississippi tried to revive a dual-voter system, in which voters were required to register separately for federal and state elections. The law was first enacted in 1892 to disenfranchise black voters. The Department of Justice struck down the law on the grounds that it discriminated against minority voters.
2. In 2000 the Department of Justice rejected a redistricting scheme in the city of Albany, Georgia, because it deliberately weakened the black vote.
3. When an unprecedented number of African-Americans decided to run for office in Kilmichael, Mississippi in 2001, the all-white Board of Alderman canceled local elections. The Department of Justice mandated that the elections occur, and three black aldermen and the town’s first black mayor were subsequently elected.
4. In response to a Supreme Court order in 2006 prohibiting Texas from redistricting in order to weaken Latin@ votes, the state sought to restrict early voting. The Department of Justice blocked the state action.
5. In 2003, when African-Americans won a majority of seats on the school board in Charleston, South Carolina, the county tried to introduce an at-large voting system that would prevent proportional representation and weaken the black vote. The Department of Justice ruled that the system was discriminatory and violated the Voting Rights Act.
6. In 1993 the Department of Justice blocked a motion by the city of Millen, Georgia to delay an election in a predominantly black district by two years, leaving it without representation.
7. In 2004, Waller County, Texas attempted to curtail early voting at polling places near a historically black university.
8. In 1990, Dallas County, Alabama sought to disenfranchise voters who did not return a voter update form. The Department of Justice ruled that the action was discriminatory and unnecessary.
But those aren’t all. Within the last twenty, ten, and even two years, we’ve seen no shortage of attempts to disenfranchise people of color, young people, elderly people, felons and former felons. Many times, these actions didn’t make it far thanks to federal intervention.
9. In 2011, eight states–Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin–passed voter identification laws. With one tenth of the population without identification, the law would discourage the votes of minorities, students, seniors, and people in rural areas. 24 other states introduced voter identification laws that year.
10. In 2011 Florida and Texas passed restrictions on non-profit voter registration drives. These non-profits, such as the League of Women Voters, have proved incredibly effective at helping eligible citizen register to vote, especially on college campuses and in areas with low voter turnout.
11. In 2011 Florida passed a law reducing the early voting period by nearly half and effectively limiting black, Latina and Democratic votes, as those groups constitute the majority of early voters. Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and Wisconsin also reduced their early voting periods.
12. Partly as a result of reduced early voting, lines at the polls proved unbearable for some 201,000 Florida voters who left before casting their ballots in the 2012 Presidential Election.
13. In 2012, billboards erected in predominantly black neighborhoods in Cincinnati threatened that “VOTER FRAUD IS A FELONY!”
14. Last week the Supreme Court struck down Arizona’s law requiring proof of citizenship at the polls. The law would have targeted and suppressed minority, and in particular Latina, votes. 17 other states introduced similar legislation in 2011, and proof of citizenship laws passed in Alabama, Kansas and Tennessee. A study by the Black Youth Project predicted that these kinds of laws will disenfranchise approximately 700,000 young minority voters.
15. In a recent Los Angeles mayoral race, candidates confused Latina voters by releasing misinformation about the opponents immigration and labor policies.
16. In a 2010 gubernatorial election in Maryland, one candidate’s campaign manager authorized misleading robocalls to predominantly black counties that encouraged voters to “stay home” rather than go to the polls.
Just like racial discrimination, voter suppression isn’t all in the past. Hours after the Supreme Court released its decision, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that the state’s voter identification law, perhaps the most stringent in the country, would go into effect immediately. Last year under the Section 5 pre-clearance provision a group of federal judges struck down the law, claiming that it imposed “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor,” and in particular on racial minority groups. Texas lawmakers wasted no time.
It’s easy to remove ourselves from the past, to underscore how we’ve changed rather than acknowledge historical continuities. But the overwhelming evidence of suppression aimed at minority groups whose votes could affect the status quo shows, if nothing else, that the systems of racism that disenfranchised citizens in 1965 still exist–that we’ve inherited and in many ways actively perpetuated them. Underlying the majority opinion is a frustratingly elementary notion of racism: so long as we don’t physically obstruct individuals from voting, minority disenfranchisement is a vaporous claim.
In her statement of dissent Justice Ginsberg refers to contemporary acts of voter suppression as “second-generation barriers.” Her language is apt: the racial discrimination we see now may not look exactly like the “flagrant” racism of the 1960s, but it is no doubt a close relative. Our voter identification and proof of citizenship laws are not far removed from literacy tests and “grandfather clauses.” These 16 examples and more affirm that the Voting Rights Act is still relevant, and still necessary – in full.
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