The Voting Rights Act: why we still need it

CATEGORY: RacePoliticsI was scrolling through Talking Points Memo this morning on the metro when I came across a story titled “Overturning The Voting Rights Act Would Be Seminal Moment For Conservative Legal Movement,” detailing how conservative groups are hoping to overturn the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law they consider to be outdated. The oral arguments will begin this week in the Supreme Court.

In particular, conservative groups are hoping to knock down section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which is the section blocking changes to voting procedures until they’ve been properly reviewed. From the Department of Justice:

“Under Section 5, any change with respect to voting in a covered jurisdiction — or any political subunit within it — cannot legally be enforced unless and until the jurisdiction first obtains the requisite determination by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia or makes a submission to the Attorney General. This requires proof that the proposed voting change does not deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. If the jurisdiction is unable to prove the absence of such discrimination, the District Court denies the requested judgment, or in the case of administrative submissions, the Attorney General objects to the change, and it remains legally unenforceable.”

The argument that conservatives are making is that the law was created under segregation, and is no longer necessary:

“The only reason Section 5 was originally justified and upheld by the courts was because of Jim Crow — the unusual circumstances at the time in terms of voter disenfranchisement,” Ilya Shapiro, the editor-in-chief of the Cato Supreme Court Review who filed an amicus brief in the case, told TPM. “I don’t think there’s a way to justify Section 5 anymore.”

No reason to justify Section 5? Were we watching the same election?

There are plenty of reasons to reaffirm the Voting Rights Act. This election was rife with conservative groups trying to limit the amount of “voter fraud” (excluding thousands of poor, elderly, young and minority voters) to make sure this was a “fair election” (make sure that conservatives kept their seats). And rather than charging a poll tax, using the Grandfather Clause or asking voters to take a literacy test, states were keeping people away from the polls in new ways – and not just in the South.

This was the election where Pennsylvania did everything it could to stop minority voter turnout. In 2012, billboards popped up telling voters that they needed a photo ID to vote – many of them completely in Spanish – when in reality that law wouldn’t go into effect until the following election. Poll watchers monitored predominantly African-American voter districts to make sure there was no “fraud,” and the Department of Justice investigated Allegheny County for voter suppression.

This was the election where Ohio’s Tea Party took it upon themselves to personally police the voter rolls, attempting to purge thousands of African Americans, Latinos, students and poor people from the rolls in the counties President Obama won in 2008.

This was the election where Florida slashed early voting hours, which are predominantly used by minority voters and low wage workers who cannot afford to miss work to vote – and even admitted that they cut the hours for to suppress minority voting. Voters in poor areas received calls telling them the wrong election day and the state also targeted thousands of Hispanics as “potential non-citizens” so they could be purged from voter rolls. When the state voter board refused to purge the rolls, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner vowed to continue his quest to stop the so-called fraud, saying it was his “moral duty” to purge these people from the rolls.

With outrageous efforts like these (and crazies like Ken Detzner in charge), this was the election that made it alarmingly clear the Voting Rights Act is more important than ever.

And in the past, Even Congress agrees; they’ve renewed it in 1966, 1973, 1980, 1999, and again in 2006. In fact, in 2006 Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act on the basis that “vestiges of discrimination in voting continue to exist as demonstrated by second generation barriers constructed to prevent minority voters from fully participating in the electoral process.”

In simple language, new ways of keeping minority voters out of the polls are popping up around the country, especially in swing states, and it’s still important to stop that from happening.

Our country doesn’t have the same Jim Crow segregationist laws that we did in 1965, and that leads many leading conservatives to believe we can do without the Voting Rights Act. But even with those laws no longer on the books, suppression of minority voting rights is still a huge problem, in both the north and the south. And the suppression isn’t just limited to African Americans: as the Latino population has grown, so have the efforts to keep Hispanic voters from voting (especially in swing states – both of these groups skew Democratic).

Yes, we’ve come a long way since 1965. But voter rights have taken steps backward in progress over the past few elections, and it cannot be allowed to continue. Opponents of the Voting Rights Act call it “outdated” and irrelevant, but I argue with examples like these and so many more, that it is more vital and important to renew than ever – especially because the opponents of the Voting Rights Act are the ones suppressing voting to begin with. The law may be old and its purpose may be seemingly outdated, but it’s the best legal pathway to make sure that all Americans are allowed to vote, regardless of ethnicity, and it must be preserved.

5 replies »

  1. No. ending of Jim Crow doesn’t lead conservatives to think Voter Rights is no longer needed. It convinces them they can pretend we no longer need it.

    • I was going to comment on how charitable Alex is being in her characterization of the GOP here. What we’re seeing isn’t people who don’t think the VRA is necessary any longer. That would imply that they thought it was necessary at some point, which would mean they had a problem with racist voter suppression.

      They didn’t, and it’s more than clear that they still don’t. What we’re seeing here is baldfaced, overt racism. I appreciate that Alex is a responsible and circumspect writer. I am not afflicted with those virtues…..

  2. I try to make the distinction between Republicans and the Republican Party leadership – they’re two very different groups with very different sets of priorities and worldviews. Section 5, while antiquated, is still extremely necessary – the states that it covers still have problems with minority disenfranchisement, only instead of things like the poll tax or literacy test, local boards of elections use gerrymandering, misinformation and simple tricks like moving the polling places from easily accessible locations to tougher-to-reach spots to keep minorities from voting.

    It’s bullshit, and Section 5 is one of the best ways to legally fight this sort of bullshit.