The U.S. Supreme Court released its decision Tuesday in Shelby County v. Holder, a case that will have wide-ranging impact on our democracy.The Court found Section4of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) a legislative landmark of the civil rights movement–unconstitutional. The VRA outlaws discriminatory voting practices that were responsible for the widespread disenfranchisement of racial minorities, particularly African Americans in the Jim Crow South.
There are those who say we no longer need legislation that protects against voter disenfranchisement; that Jim Crow is a bygone era. On the surface, that may seem to be the case. For the first time in American history, black voter turnout surpassed whites in 2012, and Hispanic and Asian Americans also turned out to vote in historic numbers.
However, these detractors are wrong.
We cannot forget the actions of several state and local officials, more interested in influencing the outcome of the election than making sure every eligible American was able to vote, to dissuade voters by passing measures that confused and delayed them from exercising their fundamental right to vote.
In a scene straight out of Mississippi Burning, some voters in Pennsylvania, for example, were actually asked to pay a fee to obtain an identification card, a voting requirement endorsed by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett. Requiring a person to pay for an identification card to vote is a modern-day poll tax. Voter ID laws such as the Pennsylvania law place excessive burden on disabled, minority, low-income and elderly Americans.
In the last few months, similar legislation was supported by elected officials in Michigan, Ohioand Virginia and only two hours after the decision was announced, Texas immediately enacted a voter ID law that judges in 2012 ruled would impose “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor.”
This is why the Voting Rights Act is so crucial to our democracy. Section 5 of the law requires places with a persistent history of discrimination to submit proposed changes in voting procedures to the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal District Court. Now that Section 4–the part of the Voting Rights Act that sets the standard for discriminatory practices–has been ruled unconstitutional, these jurisdictions can pass any and all laws to suppress the vote, and voters now have very limited recourse.
Contemptuous voter suppression legislation and other attempts to impose new hurdles between voters and the ballot box are the reason why the Voter Rights Act remains important today. Time and again, Congress has endorsed the Voting Rights Act–doing so last in 2006 for another 25 years.
It is now up to Congress to remedy the harm the Supreme Court has done to our fundamental right to the ballot, and it is up to the American people to fight against all forms of voter suppression.