A call to action in the wake of the Supreme Court’s voting rights act decision

OPINION - The Supreme Court’s decision to tear out the heart out of the Voting Rights Act should serve as a call to action for all Americans who care about protecting our democracy...

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The Supreme Court’s decision to tear out the heart out of the Voting Rights Act should serve as a call to action for all Americans who care about protecting our democracy.

Until Congress steps in, we are without the best defense we have to stop efforts to suppress the votes of millions of people of color. Before the ruling, the places with the very worst ongoing records of discrimination were required to submit proposed voting changes to the federal government for review before those changes went into effect.  This is important because some states’ ability to enact novel and contemptible methods to discriminate against African-American, Latino, Asian American, and Native American voters far outpaces the courts’ ability to strike down each and every such scheme on a case by case basis.

Now this requirement to get voting changes approved only exists on paper because the Supreme Court said Congress should come up with a new list of places where the requirement should apply.

We must call on Congress to act with urgency so that we do not backtrack on the progress that has been made.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision to debilitate Section 5, Alabama wasted no time in vowing to implement a new photo identification law—a law that has the potential to burden the poor, the elderly, and voters of color in Alabama. Texas, where Section 5 blocked the implementation of one of the nation’s most racially discriminatory photo ID laws and redistricting plans, is seeking to implement those measures immediately. The Supreme Court’s decision leaves these voters without the essential protections of Section 5 to block these measures before their implementation.

Hubris, as Justice Ginsburg wrote in her dissenting opinion, characterizes the Supreme Court’s faulty determination that current voting experiences in Alabama, Texas, or the other places formerly protected have no relationship to those states’ histories of racism. I dare say that many Black citizens of Alabama see a straight line of racial discrimination from slavery through Reconstruction to the Bloody Sunday March and the enactment of the Voting Rights Act through to the present.

Take, for example, Dallas County, Alabama, where, in the City of Selma, extraordinary citizens marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in protest of decades-long racial discrimination in voting. These heroes risked—and, in the case of some, sacrificed—their lives in the notorious events of Bloody Sunday. The Voting Rights Act was passed five months after these tremendous acts of bravery.

Before this past Tuesday’s ruling, Section 5 protected voters in Dallas County from local officials’ persistent efforts to move from one evasive tactic to another to minimize the power of the Black vote in Alabama. In the 1980s, because of Section’s 5 protections, Selma was prevented from implementing discriminatory redistricting plans and ordinances. In the 1990s, Section 5 blocked Dallas County’s attempt to purge Black voters from the rolls, and prevented the County from imposing racial quotas to minimize Black electoral opportunity. As recently as 2010, Alabama elected officials were caught on tape referring to Black voters as “illiterates” and “Aborigines.”

The Supreme Court’s decision is divorced from the well-documented reality that circumvention of voting rights persists to this day in Alabama and the other previously covered places. We have, indeed, made significant progress towards fulfilling our democracy’s promises, as evident by the historic participation of African-American, Latino, and Asian-American voters in the 2008 and 2012 elections, and by our having twice elected an African-American President. But in spite of these undeniable strides, race still matters in voting access in this country. Nowhere is this more evident than in Alabama, where, in August 2008, the City of Calera in Shelby County attempted to draw new redistricting lines that would have eliminated the city’s only majority African-American district by cutting its composition from 70% registered Black voters to just 29.5%. That district, brought about by litigation, was a remedy to over 100 years of voting discrimination in Alabama. With Section 5 in place, that discriminatory redistricting change was blocked.

The brilliance of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is that it ensures that communities of color can count on their right to vote and to have their votes count on an equal basis. Section 5 did this by preventing discrimination from taking root. But without a list of covered areas in this country, Section 5 is powerless.

By developing and passing legislation to get a new coverage provision, Congress can fix the serious risks that the Supreme Court’s decision has created. Legislators of both parties have an interest, and an obligation, to ensure that every American can vote, and can rely on her vote counting. Just seven years ago, in 2006, 98 Senators and 390 House members reauthorized the Voting Rights Act, recognizing that Section 5 is still a vital tool to protect our democracy.

Each of us also has a role to play in ensuring that Congress achieves this fix. It is now our charge to remind Congress of the importance of Section 5.

So here’s how you can participate in keeping Section 5 alive.

– Contact your federal legislators in the Senate and in the House. Ask them to stand by their 2006 vote (98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House) to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.

– You also can support this petition started by the NAACP to urge Congress to pass new legislation to save the Voting Rights Act.

– Join the Campaign to Restore Voting Rights, led by the Leadership Conference Education Fund.

– Contact your state legislators to request that they pass new state laws to protect your right to vote.

– Collect your stories about voting changes in your community that you believe may be discriminatory, and tell my organization, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, about them at [email protected]. Thousands of voting changes are made every year, whether on the state, county, or local level. Changes to federal and state congressional districts attract attention, but the seemingly “small” changes—such as moving a local polling place, or switching from district to at-large voting—often have the most significant impacts on our communities. Be vigilant about documenting voting discrimination where it may exist.

These are our charges. It’s up to Congress and us to ensure that the Supreme Court’s disgraceful ruling is only a page, not a dark chapter, in our nation’s history.

Leah Aden is an Assistant Counsel in the Political Participation Group of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.