Voting Rights Issues Today Reflect Past Struggles

Last week, the SCOTUS declared that the key sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — namely those that required states to seek federal approval before changing election laws — were struck down in a 5-4 vote. However, the section that was struck down was not as outdated as the majority opinion states.

The VRA was established to remedy discriminatory practices in racially tense states across America. SCOTUS ruled that with changing times, the formula for preclearance (the term for the federal approval of voting laws) was not in tune to the progress that America has made in race relations.

“Our country has changed,” says Chief Justice John Roberts. “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”

“Current” conditions implies that the history of grandfather clauses and poll taxes are as distant to the American consciousness as Jim Crow. Such is the sentiment of the majority opinion. To many, the clear racism present in elections of the 20th century has ebbed, leaving a more equal, fair election process that doesn’t require a federal watchdog stance.

Nevertheless, the absence of more blatant displays in voter discrimination does not equate to decreased severity of the effects of voter discrimination. Modern day voting laws have effectively disenfranchised many voters, several in similar ways of its predecessors. In recent times, laws such as the North Carolina Voter ID initiative and Southern racial gerrymandering echoes sentiments of electoral discrimination from its predecessors.

It’s not a reach to say that the literacy tests of yesterday have a distant cousin in the previously blocked voter ID laws in Texas. A state with a recent legislative battle with immigration legislation, Texas quickly motioned on implementation after the SCOTUS’ declaration.

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated in her dissent, there are still second-generation effects of voting disenfranchisement that the absence of preclearance allows.

“The sad irony of [the] decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the Voting Rights Act has proven effective. The Court appears to believe that he Voting Rights Act’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that pre clearance is no longer needed… with this belief and the argument derived from it, history repeats itself.”

“Just as buildings in California have a greater need to be earthquake proofed, places where there is greater racial polarization in voting have a greater need for prophylactic measures to prevent purposeful race discrimination. Alabama’s sorry history of Section 2 violations alone provides sufficient justification for Congress’ determination in 2006 that the State should remain subject to Section 5′s preclearance requirement.”

The VRA has overlapping effects to numerous hotly debated topics in states’ issues. As immigration reform proves to be a divisive issue, the court’s decision makes it possible to pass strenuous Voter ID laws that can adversely affect the immigrant population from having an electoral impact.

Systematic voting disenfranchisement is an unintentional consequence of the VRA ruling. While Chief Justice Roberts suggests that such a law is “outdated,” he and many fail to see that voter discrimination is happening in our own time, in our own states, and is more real than ever.

Photo credit: Texas Tribune