By Abidjan Walker, Communications Intern
Just weeks away from the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, considered the seminal moment of the Civil Rights Movement, America has suffered an unfortunate setback on the path to equality.
In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, a monumental piece of legislation created to put an end to the rampant voter discrimination laws, particularly problematic in the southern portion of the United States. These law disproportionality and adversely impacted minority voters. Section 4 of this legislation, a critical component to the effectiveness of the Act, identified the coverage formula that determined which state and local jurisdiction were required to have changes to their voter regulations pre-cleared by the federal government. Without the formula calculated per Section 4, states with a long history of voter discrimination will be able to erect new barriers, leaving minority voters in these areas silenced, and consequently unprotected.
Fast forward 48 years to June 25th of this year, when the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in a 5-4 decision. Without the formula, what is often considered the most effective provision of the Voting Rights Act has been nullified, gutting the crux of the Act.
In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts concluded:
“…There is no denying, however, that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions…at the same time, voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that. The question is whether the Act’s extraordinary measures, including its disparate treatment of the States, continue to satisfy constitutional requirements.”
Even while recognizing the continued existence of voting discrimination, the majority willfully abandoned the well-established protections against this very type of discrimination. In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg — joined by Justices Kagan, Breyer and Sotomayor — also emphasized the continued existence of discrimination and the significance of the original legislation:
“…Recognizing that large progress has been made, Congress determined, based on a voluminous record, that the scourge of discrimination was not yet extirpated…The Voting Rights Act became one of the most consequential, efficacious, and amply justified exercises of federal legislative power in our Nation’s history.”
The problem, as recognized in both the majority and dissenting opinions, is that voter discrimination still exists. This discrimination may not be as blatant as it has been in the past — gone are the absurdly designed literacy tests used to disenfranchise minority voters in the first half of the 20th century — but the subtler discrimination of today is no less damaging. Mandatory voter identification laws, for example, which require all voters to present a form of government identification, disproportionally affect African-Americans and Latinos, who historically have had less access to government services and may not have the required identification.
Further proving the immediate and damaging effects of the decision, five of the nine states that were subject to federal preclearance of their voting laws under Section 5 have swiftly moved to pass stringent voter identification laws.
The dismantling of Section 4 is a historic loss in the fight against discrimination. The Voting Rights Act has protected voting grievances for decades, primarily due to Section 4. Yet now, states and counties that are known to have erected discriminatory voting barriers, will be free to amend their voting regulations and laws, leaving scores of Americans disenfranchised in the process.