The Voting Rights Act is under threat ... again

Demonstrators in Winston-Salem July 13 after the federal voting rights trial challenging a 2013 state law began.
Demonstrators in Winston-Salem July 13 after the federal voting rights trial challenging a 2013 state law began. AP

In his majority opinion for the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County decision, which struck down a major section of the Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “history did not end in 1965.” But the sad truth is that voter-suppression efforts did not end either.

In 2014, the first post-Shelby election, thousands were turned away by new restrictions in states like Texas and North Carolina. A 2014 study by the Government Accountability Office found that voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee reduced turnout by 2 to 3 percent during the 2012 election, enough to swing a vote, with the highest drop-off among young, black and newly registered voters.

This could be a disturbing preview for 2016, which will be the first presidential contest in 50 years where voters cannot rely on the full protections of the act. New restrictions will be in place in up to 15 states, which account for as many as 162 electoral votes, including crucial swing states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Virginia.

The act, signed 50 years ago on Thursday, was the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement. It swept aside longstanding practices that disenfranchised voters and prevented new ones from emerging. Between 1965 and 2013, the Justice Department and federal courts blocked more than 3,000 discriminatory voting changes. But it is precisely that capacity, known as preclearance, that the Roberts court invalidated.

The backlash to the law was as immediate as its progress. Southern states quickly challenged its constitutionality, and several changed their election laws to stop newly registered black voters and candidates from winning elected office.

The backlash entered a new phase after the 2000 election, when a botched voter purge in Florida disproportionately prevented African-Americans from voting and helped George W. Bush win the White House.

The push to make it harder to vote escalated again after the Tea Party’s triumph in the 2010 elections, when half the states passed new voting restrictions, which disproportionately targeted the core of President Obama’s coalition.

Many of these laws were blocked in court during the 2012 election and helped inspire a backlash by minority voters. That year, for the first time in a presidential election, the percentage of blacks who turned out to vote exceeded that of whites.

Then came Shelby County. Laws that were previously stopped under the act immediately went into effect, while new states rushed to pass tougher voting restrictions. A month after the Shelby County decision, North Carolina passed a sweeping restructuring of its election system, repealing or curtailing nearly every reform in the state that made it easier to vote.

The Justice Department and civil rights groups are challenging the new law in federal court. North Carolina is making the familiar argument that the lawsuit amounts to “the equivalent of election law affirmative action.”

But even if the plaintiffs win, that’s just one law in one state. The voting rights landscape today most closely resembles the period before 1965, when the blight of voting discrimination could be challenged only on a torturous case-by-case basis.

What can be done? The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015, introduced in Congress in June, would compel states with a recent history of voting discrimination to clear election changes with the federal government and require approval for measures that target minority voters today. But the bill hasn’t gone anywhere. On the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, Congress won’t even schedule a hearing.

Ari Berman is a political correspondent for The Nation.