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Topics / Voting Rights

Geri Mannion: Challenges to the Voting Rights Act

Today: Supreme Court Hears Arguments on Challenges to Voting Rights Act

Why is this case so important? What’s at stake?

The Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 and reauthorized by Congress many time over the past four decades, has ensured that African Americans and other minorities are actually able to vote…. Before the law was passed, African Americans were systematically stopped from voting. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and other issues were used to challenge them. As citizens — as voters — it was very difficult ─ and not just in the South. People died for the right to vote. When the Act was passed, it sent a message across the country that the federal government would ensure that a minority person’s voice would be heard.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is a critical piece of legislation. Based on patterns of discrimination, all or parts of 16 states are required to submit any changes to voting procedures for approval by the Department of Justice or a federal court, prior to implementation. These states are both in the South as well as in cities in California, Michigan, and New York.

Now, decades later, there continues to be discrimination. New citizens can be asked to show their citizenship papers; ballots may need to be available in a number of languages because new citizens need translation; there may be fewer polling places in low income neighborhoods.

What’s at stake with the challenge to the Voting Rights Act? Everyone’s right to have their vote be counted. Older people may not be able to produce their birth certificates, which are required by new voter identification laws. Young people also may not have appropriate identification, and college students have been challenged about their residency. If this is a pattern, it’s good to know that citizens have the right to challenge those local election laws. The Justice Department’s voting rights unit is the nonpartisan litigation arm of the American public, assuring that all Americans have the right to vote regardless of their race, ethnicity, age, etc. 

This is the sixth time since 1965 that the Supreme Court has reviewed Section 5. What’s different this time?

Shelby County v. Holder is basically supporting the notion that because we now have an African American president, African Americans are voting in numbers so high that there is no longer a need for Section 5, and that patterns of discrimination are no longer a barrier. But that is not necessarily the case. As we know from the last few years, new voter registration and voter ID requirements continue to be barriers to those wanting to vote, especially minorities. The Voting Rights Act protects them. We should ensure there is an arm of the government that guarantees all Americans CAN vote. 

How great are the chances that the court might overturn section 5?

I have absolutely no idea. I am not a lawyer! The Supreme Court is often difficult to predict. The Court will look at the evidence submitted. Given the historical significance of the Voting Rights Act, the Court will take great care to ensure voters are protected. After all, every time the Voting Rights Act has gone to Congress, it’s been reauthorized by a bipartisan majority. I think there’s a good chance the Court will uphold the law so that all Americans’ voting rights continue to be protected.

What’s the one thing that matters in this case that some might overlook, and that you would like to emphasize?

I would say that it’s important to talk not only about the Voting Rights Act, but about voting in general. It’s not just legal barriers to voters that are important. This case and conversations like those around voter ID laws last year, demonstrate that voting in this country is not easy. There are often structural barriers… like access to appropriate ID, onerous voter registration requirements, lack of civic education. But there are also attitudinal barriers. The United States has one of the lowest voting rates of all industrial democracies — about 50 percent in presidential election years. This fact alone should stimulate a conversation about why so few vote. Why don’t we make it easier to vote? Why doesn’t our country automatically register citizens to vote? Why don’t we register young people to vote while they are in high school? If registration were easier, candidates could just concentrate on persuasion!

I hope that the conversation that is stimulated by the Supreme Court case reminds the larger public of the civil rights struggle that took decades for African Americans to get the right to vote. Americans need to be reminded that people died to ensure every person’s vote counted. We need to continue to protect that right to vote.

Additional grantee resources:

“Why the Voting Rights Act Remains Vital—Real Stories” — Leadership Conference Education Fund fact sheet