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Voting Rights in America, Six Years after Shelby v. Holder

It remains clear that we need to restore and revitalize the Voting Rights Act.

  • Max Feldman
June 25, 2019

Six years ago today, the Supreme Court significantly weakened the Voting Rights Act. In its June 25, 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, the Court struck down with a 5–4 majority a provision of the Voting Rights Act that determined which jurisdictions with a history of discrimination had to “pre-clear” changes to their election rules with the federal government prior to implementing them. By striking down this so-called coverage formula, the Court rendered the preclearance provision a dead letter.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the coverage formula was no longer “grounded in current conditions” because the “country has changed” since the formula was first adopted in 1965. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in dissent, observed that the country has changed precisely because of the effectiveness of the preclearance regime. She wrote that trashing preclearance was “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

So who was right? Consider the following facts. The day the Shelby decision was handed down, Texas officials announced their intention to implement a strict voter ID law that had previously been denied preclearance – a law that the federal courts eventually found to be discriminatory, following years of litigation. Soon after, Alabama and Mississippi followed suit with their own photo ID laws, and North Carolina passed an omnibus election law that included restrictions such as strict photo ID and cutbacks to early voting. A federal court later struck down the North Carolina law, finding that it had been passed with a discriminatory purpose. So far this year, five states have passed (or are poised to pass) significant laws restricting access to the vote – three of which were previously subject to preclearance. And these laws are just a part of the post-Shelby story, which includes suspect poll closures, a significant uptick in voter purges, and other forms of voter suppression.

Six years after Shelby, it is clear that “current conditions” demand that we restore and revitalize the Voting Rights Act.

There has been progress toward that goal. At the start of the year, Democratic lawmakers introduced and then passed a sweeping democracy reform bill through the House of Representatives, which included a commitment to restoring the Voting Rights Act. In February, Representative Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) re-introduced the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which includes an updated coverage formula. And in March, Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) re-introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act, which also includes an updated coverage formula, and is backed by a bipartisan group of co-sponsors. Lawmakers are working to document the present state of voting rights and voter suppression in states across the nation, in order to meet the Supreme Court’s mandate that an updated coverage formula address current conditions on the ground.

Representative Sensenbrenner’s efforts underscore that, until very recently, protecting the voting rights of people of color enjoyed strong bipartisan support. The Voting Rights Act was re-authorized in 2006 with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

Lawmakers recognized then – as they should now – that the Voting Rights Act represents what is best about our nation. At our best, Americans share an unbreakable commitment to making real the promise of equality for all people contained in our founding documents. On this day, as we reflect on the damage wrought by the Shelby decision, let us recommit ourselves to realizing that promise.

(Image: Alex Wong/Getty)