The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a landmark piece of civil rights legislation intended to enforce the 15th Amendment to the Constitution by forbidding states to obstruct the voting rights of any American citizen, regardless of the color of their skin or their economic situation.
A hard-fought victory, civil rights leaders struggled for decades in the face of racial discrimination. These efforts reached a fever pitch in the 1960’s, culminating in a triad of legislation — the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 — which substantially improved the living conditions in the United States.
The Supreme Court is currently reviewing a case from Shelby County, Alabama which challenges Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 requires certain states and counties with a history of voter disenfranchisement to have any changes to voting procedures approved by the U.S. Attorney General before they are implemented. Though a final decision on the case could be months away, the justices appear to be leaning 5–4 against Section 5.
States currently covered by Section 5 include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Counties in a few other states are also covered, including Monterey County in California. Shelby County asserts that black Alabamians no longer face voting discrimination such as poll taxes and literacy tests and that Section 5 therefore constitutes an unfair intrusion of the federal government into state responsibilities.
The idea of “states’ rights,” cherished by many Republicans both modern and in the past, has sadly become a code word for racism.
The kick-off of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign of 1980 was held in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964 with the cooperation of members of Neshoba County’s Sheriff’s Office.
Reagan did not acknowledge the tortured history of this town but instead told the white audience he was a champion of “states’ rights.” Considering that “states’ rights” had formerly allowed the state of Mississippi to disenfranchise almost all black voters, Reagan’s statement can be viewed as thinly veiled race-baiting.
Opponents of Section 5 who argue voter discrimination no longer exists are either naive or making a purposeful attempt at deception.
Voter ID laws — which largely affect people of color, poorer Americans, students and the elderly — exist in 30 states, including Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas. Each of these states have a history of voter disenfranchisement, according to the Section 5 provisions. Each of these states have made their voter ID laws more stringent in the last 10 years.
Arizona, a state covered by Section 5, printed 50 Spanish-language voter registration cards with the wrong election date in Maricopa County — a county that has a long history of issues existing between Hispanic residents and white officials. Officials said the misprint was a mistake.
Five counties in Florida are covered by Section 5. Each of those counties attempted to cut early voting hours in the 2012 election.
In Cleveland, Clear Channel Communications put up 30 billboards reading “Voter fraud is a felony!” These billboards were placed in predominantly Hispanic and black neighborhoods.
Gerrymandering, the process of redrawing district lines to ensure that a particular party has a majority of support in that district, is also a continuing issue.
After the 2010 elections, in which Republicans gained a large measure of power in state legislatures, Republicans led redistricting in seven states. As a result, in 2012, it took over three votes to elect a Democratic House member compared to one for a Republican House member in North Carolina. In Ohio, it took over two and a half votes to elect a Democratic member as compared to one to elect a Republican member.
A major impetus for the passage of the Voting Rights Act was “Bloody Sunday” in 1965, when dozens of young people protesting voter discrimination were beaten by police while attempting to march from Selma, Ala. to Montgomery. March 7 marked the 48-year anniversary of Selma. And yet the Supreme Court is threatening to invalidate these struggles by reversing the legislation they devoted their lives to winning.
If the Supreme Court eliminates one of the most significant provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the civil rights movement will have suffered a major blow. It has been almost half a century since those battles were won. Let’s not allow Shelby County to force us to fight them again.