“Voter suppression is the most existential crisis in our democracy.” – Stacey Abrams
In 1965, Congress passed the seminal Voting Rights Act (the VRA) to end the widespread and systematic disenfranchisement of Black voters across the country.
Critically, the Voting Rights Act required that any state with a history of voting discrimination had to “preclear” changes to their voting laws or practices with the federal government. In this way, the VRA prevented voter suppression before it could take place. And for decades, Democrats and Republicans worked together to extend and expand the VRA.
In 2013, however, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, gutting that critical “preclearance” protection. In a 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the Roberts Court decided that the VRA’s stringent requirements were no longer needed, in part because the VRA had so effectively reduced voter disenfranchisement. In her dissent, Ruth Bader Ginsburg slammed the Court’s decision: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Free of federal interference after Shelby County v. Holder, laws and other policy changes meant to suppress the vote have sprung up across the country, disproportionately targeting Black and Brown voters. Read more to learn about the legacy of the Voting Rights Act, and what you can do to fight voter suppression right now.
The Legacy of Shelby County v. Holder
The Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision removed the “preclearance” clause from the Voting Rights Act, opening the floodgates to new state and local laws and practices that disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color, including strict voter ID laws, limits on early and absentee voting, fewer polling places, eliminating same-day registration, and wrongfully purging voters from the rolls. The results have devastated access to the ballot box in communities of color.
Since Shelby, at least 20 states have passed new voting restrictions. Between 2016 and 2018, 17 million people were purged from voter rolls. In 2016, more than a million Americans tried to vote but couldn’t because they faced problems at the polls like long lines, problems with their registration, and strict voter ID laws.
These racist barriers to voting were particularly obvious during the recent Georgia primary, where voters in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods stood in line for up to 8 hours to vote. Voters reported long lines, faulty machines, a lack of poll workers, and insufficient numbers of paper ballots. Georgia, a state once covered by the Voting Rights Act due to its long history of voter suppression, no longer needs to preclear voting restrictions with the federal government. The chaotic results were obvious.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these problems, forcing the closure of polling locations and presenting challenges to in-person voting often relied on by voters of color. The pandemic has already disproportionately harmed communities of color, and now it may silence their voices as well.
Georgia isn’t alone. Without the Voting Rights Act, states across the country have made it significantly harder and harder for Americans of color to vote. The 2020 primary was the latest, devastating example of this.
How We Can Fight Back
The anniversary of the Shelby County v. Holder ruling is a reminder that we must work to end voter suppression and restore the Voting Rights Act. In the face of continued racist attacks on voting rights, here are three different actions you can take:
If you only have a few moments, this is for you. The House of Representatives already passed a bill to restore the Voting Rights Act, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, also known as HR4. The bill would restore the “preclearance” requirement. With the bill stalled in the Senate, we’ve created a petition demanding that Congress make passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act a top priority after the November election.
On May 15th, the House passed the HEROES Act, which would allocate funding to help safeguard against voter suppression caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, Mitch McConnell and the Senate have refused to act. Take a few minutes to call your senators today and tell them to pass the full $4 billion in federal election assistance needed by states and localities to protect and expand voting opportunities this year.
This action is more of a time commitment — but has a direct impact! In states with a history of wrongful voter purges, we’re texting voters who have been purged from the voter rolls to get them re-registered. A voter can be removed from the voter rolls for a variety of arbitrary reasons, but young voters and voters of color are much more likely to be targeted and disenfranchised. Many voters don’t even know they’ve been purged until it’s too late. You can help change that.
If lawmakers are serious about combating systemic racism and living up to the ideals our country was founded on, they must restore the Voting Rights Act. Without this crucial safeguard against voter suppression, voters all across the country will continue to face racially discriminatory obstacles to voting. We all have an obligation to stop this attack on our democracy.