Court Rejects Congress’ Determination of Where the Voting Rights Act Should Apply, Leaving Voters Unprotected
By Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
The Supreme Court’s decision today to strike down a key part of the Voting Rights Act is an act of extraordinary judicial overreach. The Supreme Court ruling takes the most powerful tool our nation has to defend minority voting rights out of commission. By second-guessing Congress’ judgment about which places should be covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the Court has left millions of minority voters without the mechanism that has allowed them to stop voting discrimination before it occurs. This is like letting you keep your car, but taking away the keys.
To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. Congress must step in. In 2006, Congress amassed a 15,000 page record supporting its judgment that minority voters in certain places needed specific protections to be able to participate equally in the political process. The Supreme Court today held that Congress must now return to the drawing board to reconsider which jurisdictions in the country should be covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court declined the request by Shelby County, Alabama to strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 requires some states and localities to illustrate that proposed changes to the voting process don’t suppress minority voters before those changes can take effect.
The Court did not rule on the constitutionality of Section 5 itself, which has been upheld in four previous challenges. Today’s ruling conflicts with our deeply held value in America that every individual has the sacred right to vote. Our country is stronger when more—not fewer—people participate in the political process. Today will be remembered as a step backwards in the march towards equal rights. We must ensure that this day is just a page in our nation’s history, rather than the return to a dark chapter. In the last few years we have witnessed an assault on our voting rights in the places covered by the Voting Rights Act that has been historic, both in terms of its scope and intensity.
In the 2012 elections, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act blocked efforts to suppress millions of voters of color in Florida, Texas, and South Carolina. In the past 25 years, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has stopped over 1,000 proposed discriminatory voting changes from taking effect. The Voting Rights Act recently rejected numerous discriminatory voting measures, including preventing Alaska in 2008 from eliminating precincts in several Native American villages, which would have required voters to travel by air or sea in order to cast a ballot; a city council election from being cancelled in Kilmichael, Mississippi in 2001 after candidates of color were poised to win for the first time in the City’s history; and, in Shelby County, Alabama in 2008, where this lawsuit originates, Section 5 reinstated the City of Calera’s only African-American councilman after he lost his seat when his district was reduced from 70.9% registered Black voters to just 29.5%.
We must now confront the poison of voter suppression in the places where it is most intense without our most effective antidote. Congress must step in to aggressively and expeditiously prevent an onslaught of attacks on the right to vote. The ink will barely be dry on this decision before people will start hatching plans to get between Americans and the ballot box. Fortunately, members of Congress have already committed to protect voting rights against racial discrimination. Our elected officials have a responsibility to do everything in their power to protect the fundamental right to vote. The Voting Rights Act has always had bipartisan support, including in 2006 (by 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House), the last time it was reauthorized. When it comes to matters as fundamental as the right to vote, we can’t wait for problems to occur before we fix them. Congress has the power to make good on the promise that every American should have the right to vote, and it must exercise that power forthwith.