The U.S. Supreme Court struck at the heart of the most successful piece of civil rights legislation in American history when it invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 of the act requires state and local governments in certain parts of the country to obtain approval, or “preclearance,” from the federal government before they can change their election laws. The practical effect of the Court’s decision was to render Section 5 inoperative by invalidating the formula that determines which jurisdictions are subject to its protections. Fortunately, the decision leaves Congress with the ability to enact a new coverage formula and restore the law’s strongest safeguard in the places where it is needed the most. And make no mistake: The Voting Rights Act is still desperately needed.
The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to correct the racial discrimination prevalent in many states’ voting regimes. In the decades since, the Act has been updated and reauthorized, most recently in 2006 by overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress. Just last year, the Section 5 preclearance process enabled federal authorities to block or weaken several laws that would have made it harder for minorities to vote in states like Florida, South Carolina, and Texas.
Opponents of the Voting Rights Act argue that it is no longer necessary, that the nation has moved past its legacy of discrimination. But there’s plenty of evidence that discrimination is still part of American life, from racially disproportionate enforcement of drug laws to shockingly racist reactions to a cereal ad featuring an interracial couple.
A recent report by the Brennan Center explains the many ways that minority voting rights will be threatened by the loss of Section 5. For instance, the preclearance process can deter policies that would create obstacles for minority voters from being enacted in the first place. To describe just one of several examples, in 2012, Decatur, Alabama submitted a plan for federal approval that would have diluted the only majority-minority city council district in the city. After the Justice Department requested more information, the city abandoned the plan, assuming that the expected harm to minority voters would keep it from being precleared. Without Section 5 in effect, this deterrent is gone.
Moreover, many laws either have been quietly waiting for Section 5 review or technically remain on the books after the federal government blocked them from going into effect. Now, these laws might be enforced without further legislation by the states or municipalities in question. In fact, just hours after the Supreme Court’s decision, the Texas Attorney General announced that two laws blocked by Section 5 would take effect “immediately”: the strictest voter ID law in the nation and a redistricting plan that a federal court found was the result of intentional discrimination by Texas lawmakers.
The loss of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act could soon prove disastrous, as the past few years have brought a wave of restrictive voting laws that is nowhere close to ending. A Brennan Center analysis shows that the beginning of this year saw 82 restrictive bills introduced in 31 states. Eight restrictive bills have already been passed in seven states. Despite the problems with long lines last Election Day, North Carolina and Texas are considering and Nebraska has passed legislation to reduce early voting opportunities. Other bills would impose strict ID requirements, make it harder to register to vote, and limit the voting ability of persons with criminal convictions. Restrictive laws like these disproportionately harm minority voters.
A new study has revealed compelling evidence that racial discrimination is a key part of the explanation for the trend toward restrictive voting laws. Social scientists Keith Bentele and Erin O’Brien of the University of Massachusetts examined the rates at which states have proposed and passed restrictive voting legislation from 2006 to 2011. These measures include reductions in early voting opportunities, strict photo ID requirements, and restrictions on voter registration activities, all of which disproportionately affect minorities. They found that restrictive voting laws are more likely to be proposed and passed in states with larger proportions of African-American residents, higher minority turnout, and more non-citizens. And the greater the increase in minority turnout over time, the more bills were offered. These findings strongly suggest that restrictive voting proposals are intended to counteract increased minority voting power. Despite the claims of Voting Rights Act opponents that the law has outlived its usefulness, this study shows that the protections it provides are still necessary.
The study adds to a mountain of evidence indicating that America still needs Section 5. Congress pored over 15,000 pages of documents and testimony when it last renewed the law. Even though the Voting Rights Act is nearly 50 years old, state lawmakers are still trying to suppress the minority vote, as the patterns found by this study strongly suggest. Painful as it may be to admit, minorities still need the federal government’s assistance in securing the most elemental right in a democracy: the right to vote. Congress has an urgent duty to respond to the Supreme Court’s ruling by enacting a new coverage formula and restoring this landmark civil rights legislation.