Law Doesn't Make It Right: Suppressing Voters Suppresses Democracy

Discriminatory practices are increasingly institutionalized. Allowing voter suppression tactics to occur unchecked not only disenfranchises voters, but solidifies the power of dominant groups to control decision-making at local, state, and national levels.
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A week following the Supreme Court's decision to strike portions of the Voting Rights Act, questions are finally emerging about the future of voting equality. Among them: Where is the organized response in the wake of a decision that effectively erases the voting protections set in place by the civil rights movement? How can we be in tune with the victories of the week, yet unmoved by what amounts to a green light for voting suppression practices and impaired democracy?

Discriminatory practices are increasingly institutionalized, seeping into our social and political fabric, and influencing how policy is made and enforced. Allowing voter suppression tactics to occur unchecked not only disenfranchises voters, but solidifies the power of dominant groups to control decision-making at local, state, and national levels.

For instance, in the hours following the ruling, Texas legislators moved to instate a redistricting map that was previously rejected for discriminating against black and Latino voters. In other words, this ruling is already resulting in immediate negative consequences for voters. However, Texas isn't alone. The North Carolina House recently passed an identification-based voter suppression bill, and a count of voting restriction bills across the country reveals that more than 200 such measures have been introduced in the past three years alone.

A brief history of the Voting Rights Act:
  • The 1965 Act was passed to outlaw discriminatory voting practices designed to disenfranchise African Americans.
  • States with a history of voting discrimination (for instance, states that previously used a qualification or prerequisite to limit voting) could not change their voting practices without first receiving approval from the Department of Justice, called preclearance.
  • Section four of the Act sets the formula requiring preclearance of voting practices, while section five details federal preclearance procedures.
  • In 2006, Congress passed a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act, but the new ruling means these states are no longer subject to preclearance before changing their voting practices.

In his opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts irrationally argues that the Act is outdated because times have changed, effectively denying the existence of racist sentiments and behavior, and knowingly and intentionally guiding the court to turn a blind eye to discriminatory voting practices.

In her 37-page dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg draws attention to recordings from an FBI investigation that revealed Alabama state senators and their political allies using derogatory terms such "aborigines" to refer to African Americans, and freely discussing their intention to stop a specific referendum from reaching the ballot because they feared it would bring more African Americans to the polls. The conversations became public during the case of United States v. McGregor.

As Justice Ginsburg points out, this conversation is not from the 1800s, nor from the 1960s -- it is from three years ago in 2010.

When the recordings were introduced at trial, the presiding judge said they "represent compelling evidence that political exclusion through racism remains a real and enduring problem," and that these sentiments were "regrettably entrenched in the high echelons of state government" (Alabama. Id., at 1347).

Given the Court's asinine determination that voting discrimination is something for the history books, what we need is an organized response in communities across the country. The Court has made their stance clear, and while pressuring our legislators to amend the Constitution is one approach, we also can't afford to wait for Congress to remedy this situation -- that day may never come.

In the meantime, let's think about upcoming elections. What tactics can we use to help register voters, get them to the polls, and ensure voting in a timely manner if:
  • Their polling place changes or has been eliminated unexpectedly?
  • Their polling place hours change?
  • Their election has been canceled?
Thinking to the future, what strategies and alliances are necessary to:
  • Stop detrimental redistricting campaigns?
  • Reduce the likelihood of at-large elections?
  • Prevent policies that require a drivers license to vote?

Raising awareness is also key -- if you don't know about it, you can't plan for it. How will you alert members of your community to changes in voting practices? How will you help instill the idea that suppressing voters suppresses democracy?

This week is the start of a much larger conversation, but it's our responsibility to keep that conversation going; the potential implications of this unjust ruling are now more clearly than ever a threat to justice everywhere.

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