The Voting Rights Act has been described as the “crown jewel” of civil rights legislation. Its passage was secured with the courage, grit and blood of activists throughout the south, like Fannie Lou Hamer who endured beating simply for trying to register to vote in Mississippi, Medgar Evers who was murdered by a White supremacist, students Goodman, Cheney & Schwerner who went missing at the start of Freedom Summer 49 years ago, and Black voters in Selma, Alabama, who were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
It’s hard to imagine a piece of legislation with a greater pedigree and for which more people have fought and died than the Voting Rights Act.
And yet in a 5-4 decision in a case called Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down last week a key provision of the Act. Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Congress designated particular jurisdictions is the U.S. that must obtain permission from a federal authority (either the Dept. of Justice or a federal court) before they enact voting changes that might have the effect of discriminating against minority voters. The jurisdictions are largely located in the south, although several boroughs in New York, parts of Alaska and Arizona are included as well. The formula which designates the jurisdictions to be covered is set out in Section 4 of the Act. The Court has declared that Section 4 unconstitutional. This essentially hollows out the foundation of Section 5.
The Court’s decision is a shocking usurpation of power from the Congress, which in 2006 held hearings over the course of 9 months, heard from almost 100 witnesses and amassed a 15,000 record. The result of Congress’ searching inquiry was its determination that voting discrimination continued in the jurisdictions identified in Section 4 of the Act. In fact, the record was replete with examples of voting discrimination in those areas. For example, Congress found that the City of Calera in Shelby County, Alabama discriminated in 2008 when they reduced the Black population in the sole majority Black council district from 70% to 29% African American. Congress learned that in 2003 once Blacks won a majority of seats on the Charleston, South Carolina school board, Charleston County proposed switching from single-member district to at-large voting for the council, and failed to inform any of the Black members of the school board of the proposed change. In 2001 in Kilmichael, MS, the all-White town council decided to simply cancel the town’s election, once a number of Blacks decided to run, and data showed that the jurisdiction had become majority Black in population.
In each of these cases Section 5 prevented the discriminatory plans from reaching fruition. Today that protection has been removed, by a five-member majority on the Court that substituted its judgment for the record painstakingly amassed by Congress.
This decision is devastating for minority voters in cities, towns, and counties all over this country. In essence, the voting protections of 48 years have been removed with a stroke of the Court's pen.
Just as an example of how emboldened southern jurisdictions are likely to become, within hours of the decision, the Attorney General of Texas said on twitter that Texas’ then-pending voter i.d. law, which has been called the most onerous in the nation and that is currently in litigation under section 5, will be enforced “immediately.” Officials from other southern jurisdictions followed suit, announcing plans to impose voting practices that would have been outlawed by section 5 of the Act before the Court’s decision. Without section 5, we will have to file costly and time-consuming litigation. Local jurisdictions will be able to go forward with discriminatory voting changes while we wait for court rulings.
Now we have to act. The NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund has been fighting voting discrimination for more than 50 years, and we won’t stop now.
1. If you live in the South or in a jurisdiction formerly covered by section 5, tell us about any voting changes happening in your community. The Court struck down section 4 of the Act and in effect removed the power of Section 5, but the rest of the Act still provides protections for minority voters. The Voting Rights Act is not dead. But without section 5, you are our eyes and ears. Go to our website at www.naacpldf.org to “Take Action,” email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call the Election Protection hotline shared by national civil rights groups at 1-866-OUR-VOTE.
2. Call your representative in Congress and tell them that they must fix the Voting Rights Act. Tell them they must act now to restore protections to minority voters in the south.
3. Organize your plans this summer to join us for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington on August 24th in Washington, D.C. We need a massive mobilization to show America that we will not go back on voting rights. Contact the National Action Network at http://nationalactionnetwork.net/mow/ for more information.
We can win this. But to win, we will need to be in the courts, in the streets, on the airwaves and in the halls of Congress. Starting now.
*Sherrilyn A. Ifill is the President & Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF). LDF represented black voters in Shelby County, Alabama in the case decided by the Supreme Court this week. Find us at www.naacpldf.org Twitter Sifill_LDF
(a version of this article initially appeared in TheRoot, an online publication of the Washington Post)