Voting Rights Act

  • August 6, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Nicole Austin-Hillery, Director and Counsel of Washington, D.C. Office, The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law 

    *This post originally appeared on The Brennan Center’s blog

    Congress went home last week without tackling several critical issues facing our country. This is common in an election year. But this year should have been different. For the first time in nearly five decades, Americans will go to the polls in November without a key protection under the Voting Rights Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court gutted last year in Shelby County v. Holder. When Congress comes back in September, leaders of both parties must act to ensure every citizen can freely cast a ballot.

    Today, on the 49th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act, it’s worth looking back at how far our nation has come on voting discrimination and race, and how we can move forward together to ensure equality and justice for all.

    The America we knew in 1965 was vastly different than the one we know now. The civil rights struggle showed our country through a black and white prism. President Lyndon Baines Johnson spoke of this race divide when he signed the VRA, which made it illegal for states to discriminate based on race in voting.

    “The stories of our Nation and of the American Negro are like two great rivers,” he said, “flow[ing] through the centuries along divided channels.” Only after the Civil War, Johnson remarked, did the two rivers begin “to move toward one another.” And a century later, the VRA would allow the two currents to “finally mingle and rush as one great stream across the uncertain and the marvelous years of the America that is yet to come.”

  • August 16, 2013

    U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) during this year’s ACS National Convention spoke a bit about his upbringing in a brutally racist society in rural Alabama. It was as Lewis recounted a time when he found inspiration in the words he heard over the radio from Martin Luther King Jr. and about the actions of Rosa Parks.

    “The action of Rosa Parks, the leadership and words of Dr. King inspired me to get in the way, to get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble,” he said at the ACS Convention.

    Lewis, in a New York Times feature, said that 50 years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Lewis spoke, the nation is still haunted by “our dark past.” This summer alone has provided too many examples of a nation resistant or fatally indifferent to the lives and rights of minorities. Indeed great economic inequalities and blatant inequalities in the criminal justice system are festering, not receding. These inequalities are decimating minority communities from coast to coast.

    At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago, Lewis in front of the Lincoln Memorial provided a rousing call for equal opportunity, equality under the law. Today he is still pursuing the cause. At the ACS Convention Lewis presciently anticipated a devastating opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court that gutted the landmark Voting Rights Act. Lewis said, “I have a strange feeling in America, at this point in history, we’re just a little too quiet. We’ve come to a point where we almost want to resign, and say this is just the way it is. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are still too many people in our society who have been left out and left behind.”

    Starting next week and running through Aug. 28 an array of groups, such as the Leadership Conference on Civil & human Rights, The Urban League, NAACP, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, SEIU, MALDEF, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and many others will host events daily commemorating the historic March and talking about the challenges and obstacles to genuine equality and economic justice that remain. A schedule of those events is available at the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s website.

    As Lewis said at the ACS Convention the nation has made strides, but much work remains to be done. Lewis urged the gathering, “Don’t give up, don’t give in, our struggle is one that does not last one day or one week, or one year. It is a struggle of a life time, or many life times. We must do what we can, as Dr. King said, to create the beloved community.” Video of Lewis’s speech is here.

  • July 3, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Steven D. Schwinn, Associate Professor of Law, The John Marshall Law School. Schwinn is also Co-Editor, The Constitutional Law Prof Blog.

    The Supreme Court and the State of Texas wasted little time last week in revealing the full implications of the Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. Between the Court’s rulings and the State’s reactions, we will soon see fundamental changes to Texas’s election law that will almost surely have a retrogressive effect on the right to vote of racial minorities in that state.

    We all know that last week the Court in Shelby County gutted the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act by striking the coverage formula for preclearance. The ruling lifted the preclearance requirement for all previously covered jurisdictions, including Texas, and rendered preclearance dormant unless and until Congress can rewrite a coverage formula. 

    But less widely known is this: Just two days after the Court issued the Shelby County ruling, it issued orders vacating two federal court decisions denying preclearance to two proposed changes to Texas’s election law -- a new and stringent voter-ID requirement, and redistricting maps for Texas’s congressional and state legislative districts.  That same day, the Texas Attorney General announced that those proposed changes would go into effect -- that after Shelby County these changes “need not . . . go through the lengthy and costly federal preclearance process because of Tuesday’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court . . . .” 

  • July 2, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Gilda R. Daniels, Associate Professor of Law, University of Baltimore School of Law. Daniels is a former Deputy Chief in the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Voting Section. For more on Daniels' work, visit her website

    Four years ago, the Supreme Court dared Congress to change the coverage formula that determined which jurisdictions would be subject to federal oversight of voting changes under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Congress did nothing. In the recent Shelby County decision, the Court indicated that it was forced to act stating, “[Congress’s] failure to act leaves us today with no choice but to declare §4(b) unconstitutional.” Further, the Court seems to deny its culpability, positing that the “nation has changed” and the formula does not address “current conditions.” While it acknowledges that the Voting Rights Act is responsible in large part for increasing voter registration for black voters and the number of minority elected officials, it essentially says that enough is enough.  It gives the impression that it views Section 5 as medicine for a disease that is no longer at epidemic proportions, but refuses to allow a targeted and effective remedy to currently infected areas. Thus, a majority of the justices, without doubt, believe that the “current conditions” of fewer disparities in voter registration, for example, merit the removal of all life sustaining legislation. 

    We’ve seen this before. In 1883, the Supreme Court found that the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which sought to make former slaves full and equal citizens, was unconstitutional. This marked a turning point in becoming a nation where all men were truly created equal. In less than 20 years after passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, the last African American left Congress after states implemented barriers to the franchise, such as literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and felon disenfranchisement laws.  It would take seventy years before an African American would return to Congress from a former Confederate state and almost a century from the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment before Congress would provide the nation with tools to combat massive and violent disenfranchisement in passing the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  

    Have conditions changed since 1965? Absolutely! No more segregated lunch counters, water fountains, Bull Connor in the courthouse door.  Does discrimination in voting continue to exist?  Absolutely!  The Court admits that fact, but decides that a state’s right to be treated equally instead of a citizen’s right to equal treatment is supreme.

  • June 27, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Atiba R. Ellis, Associate Professor of Law, West Virginia University College of Law

    In  Shelby County, AL v. Holder, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision split on ideological lines, declared unconstitutional the formula used under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to determine which states and localities must receive pre-approval of their voting rights laws. This decision, which effectively ends the preclearance practice meant to preserve minority voting rights, will transform the right to vote for years to come. Once again, relying on the myth of racial progress, the Supreme Court failed to confront the racial balkanization in voting that exists, and it ultimately crippled the role that Voting Rights Act has in limiting it.

    This lawsuit was brought by Shelby County, Ala. This county, along with the rest of Alabama, as well as Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Alaska, Arizona, and parts of seven other states (known as the “covered jurisdictions”) was required under Section Five of the Voting Rights Act to have any change in their election laws approved (or “precleared”) by the U.S. Department of Justice. The covered jurisdictions were selected for the preclearance requirement according to a formula set out in Section Four of the act. The formula considered the jurisdiction’s past history of voting rights violations, current violations, white and minority voting rates, and other factors.  Shelby County argued that both Section Five’s preclearance requirement and Section Four’s coverage formula were unconstitutional. The Court struck down the Section Four formula.

    Chief Justice Roberts' opinion for the five-justice conservative majority relied on two premises. First, the opinion stated that each state is due “equal sovereignty,” that is each state has power to regulate matters left to the states, including voting, to the same extent as other states. As innocuous as that might sound, consider Roberts’s second premise:  “the conditions that originally justified [the preclearance measures that justified differing treatment of states] no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.” Slip op. at 2.  Roberts pointed to substantial progress in voter participation and the increase in minority elected officials in the time from the passage of the act until now.  Id. at 13-15. Yet, Roberts continued, the current coverage formula does not reflect this reality.  “Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices.”  Slip op. at 18.  “Racial disparity in those numbers was compelling evidence justifying the preclearance remedy and the coverage formula. There is no longer such a disparity.”  Id.