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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

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hold­ing that the formula used to determ­ine which states and local­it­ies had to follow the Section 5 proto­cols was out of date.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.