One Year Later: New Paper on 'Shelby County' v. Holder

June 24, 2014

U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Holding Hearing Tomorrow on Bill to Strengthen Voting Rights Act

In advance of the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law released a new paper finding a number of states have moved forward with controversial election changes in the absence of a key protection under the Voting Rights Act.

“For five decades, the Voting Rights Act was the nation’s most critical tool to eradicate racial discrimination in voting,” said Myrna PĂ©rez, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “Without that key protection in place, states immediately began implementing laws making it harder to vote.”

The paper is the latest addition to the Brennan Center’s research on the State of Voting in 2014. That report, released last week, showed new voting restrictions developed since 2010 are slated to be in place in 22 states in November. In 15 states, 2014 will be the first federal election under these laws, and suits challenging the new barriers are pending in seven states. Partisanship and race were key drivers behind these measures, the report found.

The Voting Rights Act has been a critical tool in fighting restrictive voting laws. Last year’s Shelby County ruling weakened the law’s core provision, known as Section 5, which had required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to seek federal “preclearance,” or approval, before changing their voting procedures. Since then, a number of states have moved forward with restrictive laws. The Brennan Center warned of these potential consequences in a report released just weeks before the Shelby County decision.

“For nearly 50 years, preclearance assured that voting changes were transparent, vetted, and fair to all voters,” reads the Center’s latest paper, written by Democracy Program Counsel Tomas Lopez. “In just the year since Shelby County, most of the feared consequences have come to pass, including attempts to revive voting changes that were blocked as discriminatory, to move forward with voting changes previously deterred, and to implement new discriminatory voting restrictions.”

The decision has had three major impacts, the paper found:

  • Section 5 no longer blocks or deters discriminatory voting changes, as it did for decades and right up until the Court’s decision.
  • Challenging discriminatory laws and practices is now more difficult, expensive, and time-consuming.
  • The public now lacks critical information about new voting laws that Section 5 once mandated be disclosed prior to implementation.

The Center’s paper summarizes some of the stories behind these facts, and tracks the voting changes that have been implemented in the states and other jurisdictions formerly covered by Section 5.

Tomorrow, a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing will examine a bipartisan bill to strengthen the Voting Rights Act, which is currently stalled in the House. Voting advocates are pushing House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) to hold a hearing on the proposal. Some conservative commentators have also called on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who lost his primary earlier this month, to “burnish his legacy” and “exit the political stage as a hero” by bringing the bill to the House floor for a vote this summer.

“Congress must act,” added Nicole Austin-Hillery, director and counsel of the Center’s Washington, D.C., office. “There is a bipartisan bill waiting for a hearing in the House. Inaction and silence are not an option. Every day that Congress fails to protect Americans’ right to vote gives a free pass to those who would deny that right.”

For more information, or to set up an interview, please contact Erik Opsal at erik.opsal@nyu.edu or 646-292-8356.