What the Supreme Court’s Decision in Shelby Means for Voting Rights

By Melissa Donze on July 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

Wade Henderson

By Wade Henderson, President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Supreme Court’s decision on June 25 in Shelby County v. Holder will have a real and detrimental impact on the voting rights of Americans. The Court dealt a significant blow to civil and human rights. As such, all Americans should be concerned about what this means for the continued health of our democracy.

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) has long been considered the most successful civil rights law Congress ever passed. Section 5 of the VRA played a critical role for decades in stopping voting discrimination against racial minorities.

Shelby County, Alabama, challenged Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which requires state and local jurisdictions with a history and ongoing record of voting discrimination to receive preclearance from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C., before any voting-related change can take effect. The Court did not rule on the constitutionality of Section 5. Instead, the 5-4 majority ruled that Section 4a, which determines which jurisdictions are covered under Section 5, was unconstitutional. The decision effectively shuts down Section 5 until Congress creates a new formula for deciding which parts of the country are subject to preclearance.

What’s most alarming about this decision is the fact that a narrow majority of the Court substituted its political judgment for that of Congress, which in 2006, during the last reauthorization of the VRA, held extensive hearings and gathered mountains of evidence in determining that the coverage formula in Section 4 remained essential. Congress conducted more than 20 hearings, heard from more than 50 expert witnesses, and collected more than 17,000 pages of testimony. A coalition of civil and human rights groups, RenewtheVRA.org (which included my organization, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights), commissioned and submitted for the congressional record reports that detailed the continued voting discrimination in all of the states covered by Section 5 .

Without Section 5 in effect, we have lost an important tool in stopping voting discrimination against racial minorities before it happens. While the VRA still stands, the only way to combat voting discrimination now is to file a lawsuit after the damage has already been done. This is costly and doesn’t actually do what the VRA was always intended to do – deter bad actors from discriminating against minority voters.

Just last year alone, Section 5 blocked discriminatory voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina, and prevented Texas from drawing political boundaries that discriminated against African-American and Latino voters.

Our fears about a nation without an operational Section 5 have already proven true. The decision isn’t even a month old and we’re already seeing states like North Carolina introduce voter ID bills that will disproportionately keep minorities from being able to cast a ballot for their candidate of choice and curtailing early
voting. Within hours of the Court’s decision Texas’s attorney general announced that the discriminatory ID law that had been blocked by Section 5 would take effect immediately.

The danger is real. But Congress can – and must — act. The Court put the ball in our federal legislators’ hands to come up with a new formula. And while it’s true that Congress is bitterly divided along party lines, the VRA has always enjoyed broad bipartisan support. In 2006, the VRA reauthorization passed with sweeping, bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress and was signed into law by a Republican president.

So it can be done. And it’s our job as citizens to push Congress to respond in an urgent, responsible, and bipartisan manner to protect voters from discrimination at the polls.

Voting is the language of democracy. Without a vote, citizens have no say in the government that is supposed to protect and serve them. Without the ability to cast a ballot, citizens have no way to ensure that government is responsive to their needs on every issue of importance from health care to education and national security.

Join the movement at RestoreVotingRights.org

Wade Henderson is the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the nation’s premier civil and human rights coalition consisting of more than 200 national organizations working to build an America as good as its ideals.

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