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Analysis

7 Years of Gutting Voting Rights

The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County unleashed a wave of voter suppression efforts. It’s time for Congress to restore and revitalize the Voting Rights Act.

June 25, 2020
Shelby
Mandel Ngan/Getty

Seven years ago today, the Supreme Court gutted the most power­ful provi­sion in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, under­min­ing a law regarded as the most effect­ive piece of civil rights legis­la­tion in Amer­ican history.

In Shelby County v. Holder, a 5–4 major­ity moth­balled the law’s Section 5, which required states with a history of racial discrim­in­a­tion in voting to get certi­fic­a­tion in advance, or “pre-clear­ance,” that any elec­tion change they wanted to make would not be discrim­in­at­ory. The Supreme Court did this by hold­ing that the formula used to determ­ine which states and local­it­ies had to follow the Section 5 proto­cols was out of date.

For nearly 50 years, Section 5 had assured that voting changes in several states — includ­ing Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Geor­gia, Louisi­ana, Missis­sippi, South Caro­lina, Texas, and Virginia — were trans­par­ent, vetted, and fair to all voters regard­less of race.

Prior to Shelby, Bren­nan Center warned that without the protec­tions provided by Section 5, states might seek to rein­state or push a wave of discrim­in­at­ory voting meas­ures that were previ­ously blocked or deterred by the law, threat­en­ing the rights of minor­ity voters across the coun­try to cast a ballot.

Unfor­tu­nately, that’s exactly what has happened.

Within 24 hours of the Shelby ruling, Texas announced that it would imple­ment a strict photo-ID law. In the years since, Bren­nan Center has consist­ently found that states previ­ously covered by the preclear­ance require­ment have engaged in signi­fic­ant efforts to disen­fran­chise voters. Our 2018 report, to cite one example, concluded that previ­ously covered states have increased the purging of voters after Shelby when the purge rates in non-Shelby states stayed the same.

Just this month, voters — includ­ing many voters of color — faced faulty voting machines, long lines, and exten­ded wait times to cast their ballots in Geor­gia, one of the states previ­ously subject to preclear­ance require­ment. If Section 5 were still in effect, the state, which has closed hundreds of polling places since Shelby, would have been required to clear its voting changes before enact­ing them.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in his Shelby opin­ion, asser­ted that the Section 5 require­ments were no longer neces­sary, that times had changed since 1965. “The condi­tions that origin­ally justi­fied these meas­ures no longer char­ac­ter­ize voting in the covered juris­dic­tions,” he wrote.

That those condi­tions — condi­tions of racial discrim­in­a­tion and injustice — persist in voting and other Amer­ican insti­tu­tions is clearer than ever, both from the plain evid­ence of Black voters brav­ing hours-long waits in this year’s primar­ies to the demands for racial justice rising from the streets all over the coun­try.

Seven years after the disastrous Shelby decision, it’s crit­ic­ally import­ant that we restore and revital­ize the Voting Rights Act and make good on the prom­ise of the 15th Amend­ment — that no citizen be denied the right to vote based on race.