Fifty-four years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. The goal was simple and fundamental to our democracy: make the ballot box accessible to all Americans, regardless of race. For about 50 years, we saw an encouraging increase in participation by minority voters. But a 2013 Supreme Court decision weakened the law, resulting in stalled progress, but even worse, new barriers.
The latest proof? A new analysis from the Brennan Center of nationwide voter purge numbers.
In Shelby County vs. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down the part of the Voting Rights Act that identified certain jurisdictions with a documented history of discrimination in voting. This was devastating. Another part of the legislation relied on those identifications, requiring those jurisdictions to “pre-clear” any changes to their election laws with the federal government.
Officials had to demonstrate that their proposed changes would not make voters worse off and were not conceived with the intent of making voters of color worse off. If the jurisdiction couldn’t make this showing, the proposed change wasn’t allowed to go into effect. This process deterred and prevented discriminatory behavior. But because the Supreme Court invalidated the law’s identification provision, the pre-clearance provision is not operating anywhere.
In Shelby County, the Court wrote that the identification provision “made sense” in 1965, but it does not now. Our research says otherwise. Recently, we analyzed the most current data available and found that the median rate of purging voters during 2016–2018 was 40 percent higher in counties in states that had to go through the pre-clearance process at the time of the Shelby County decision than counties in states that did not. These purge numbers show that there is something sticky about these jurisdictions’ discriminatory history that comes out in current practices and makes them different from others.
Of course, we have made significant strides since the Voting Rights Act was first enacted. No one is being asked who the state commissioner of agriculture is before being allowed to register to vote. Congress looks more like America than it did in 1965. Registration and turnout rates among people of color are higher than they were in 1965. It is indisputable that the act deserves much credit for addressing the legal barriers shutting out minorities from our democracy, along with the hard work of Americans to move past some of our racial biases.
But the Supreme Court was wrong to think we do not need protocols to protect against entrenched racial discrimination at the ballot box. In the immediate aftermath of Shelby County, we saw states like Texas and North Carolina move ahead on legislation that courts found to have been intentionally discriminatory. Importantly, today, we see states continuing to enact laws that make it hard for people to register and vote, including states that used to have to go through the pre-clearance process. We also still have egregious examples of inequality. For example, Native American voters have reported having to vote in a dirt-floor chicken coop.
The Court in Shelby County noted that “history did not end in 1965.” Of course it didn’t. But neither did discrimination. We still have states putting obstacles in front of the ballot box. Congress must act and restore the Voting Rights Act. Otherwise, future historians will describe this moment as one when Congress stood on the sidelines rather than fight racial discrimination at the polls.
(Image: LBJ Library)