Tuning In and Paying Attention: Protecting Our Voting Rights From the States to the Supreme Court

Life is increasingly busy. People are spending more time working, traveling and trying to make ends meet in a rough economy. What better timing for policymakers to make seemingly innocuous changes to something as important as voting rights and slip them past a preoccupied electorate?

Unfortunately, this troubling scenario is what's currently unfolding in the states. Over 2,200 bills have been introduced at the state level, and every state is currently weighing changes to its electoral process. But in addition to what's happening in the states, the U.S. Supreme Court also holds the future of voting rights across the country in its hands. Not one, but two major voting rights cases were recently heard by the Court, Shelby County v. Holder and Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc. (ITCA). These cases have the potential to strike terrible blows to core protections of Americans' right to vote.

At stake in Shelby v. Holder, for which the Supreme Court heard arguments in February, is the monumental Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. The VRA, which was designed by Congress to eliminate racial discrimination in voting, is widely recognized as one of the nation's most effective civil rights statutes. When it was last reauthorized in 2006, Congress declared that without its protections, "racial and language minority citizens will be deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote." Yet it's on the chopping block as the Supreme Court justices debate its constitutionality, and at risk are the voting rights of millions of Americans.

Just weeks after opening its review on Shelby v. Holder, the Supreme Court took yet another pass at voting rights. In Arizona v. ITCA, the Court is reviewing the crucial National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993. Commonly known as "Motor Voter," the NVRA streamlined voter registration, making it easier for citizens to register to vote, and protecting against state restrictions on voter registration for federal elections. If the Court rules against the NVRA, states would be free to pass laws that could restrict voter registration activities, like the voter registration drives held by the League of Women Voters, and thereby prevent eligible citizens from registering to vote. The NVRA streamlined the numerous state laws that hindered citizen-led registration drives, and a decision against the NVRA would leave the voter registration process vulnerable to new forms of political manipulation.

Both the VRA and the NVRA have served as critical legislation for expanding the electorate and turning the page on the nation's history of segregation and discrimination in voting practices. The rulings on both Supreme Court cases will likely set the framework for decades of elections reform efforts to come. If states win and voters lose before the U.S. Supreme Court, we can expect to see more and more states consider restrictions on the voter registration process and the right to vote unparalleled since the days of Jim Crow.

At one point in our nation's history, the prospect that the Supreme Court might threaten such vital rights would have sent men, women and children out into the streets in protest. But it's easy for changes to slip by when we're not looking. After all, Shelby County v. Holder and Arizona v. ITCA are unfolding in the immediate shadow of another bruising election season, a time when many voters want to hear nothing more about voting, elections and political candidates.

While the potential effects of these two Supreme Court cases can't be overstated, it's never too late to tune in. We must remain vigilant, pay close attention to our state and local politics and continue to fight to protect our constitutional right to vote.