Supreme Court Voting Rights Act Ruling Damages Voter Protections
With an array of anniversaries of civil rights achievements being celebrated this year, including Dr. King’s prophetic Letter from a Birmingham Jail, United Methodist Women is dismayed by the recent Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder undoing a core element of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA).
The Court found that one of the VRA’s provisions is unconstitutional because in its analysis, our nation’s history of racial oppression has moved on since its passage. We join with other faith-based and human rights organizations to raise our voices in protest and to call for effective protections of voting rights for all.
Court: “Preclearance” of Regions is Unconstitutional
While the Supreme Court acknowledged in its ruling that race based discrimination continues at the ballot box, their decision stated that Section 4 of the VRA—which determines what states and jurisdictions must have changes to their election laws “pre-cleared” by the Federal government, due to their historic disenfranchisement of people of color—is unconstitutional.
In their decision, the Court said, “The conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.”
Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsberg points out in her powerful dissenting opinion that even with oversight from the Department of Justice the regions that have historically disenfranchised voters have been able to institute unconstitutional voting restrictions. This means that the VRA has not outlived its usefulness; on the contrary, it can and must be expanded to protect people whose voting rights are increasingly under threat.
Historic Importance of Voting Rights Act
When it was signed into law by President Johnson in 1965, the VRA was a means of enforcing the 15th Amendment, which gave African American men the right to vote and assigned to Congress the duty to effectuate those rights. It was not until the VRA was passed, 95 years later, that practices used in certain jurisdictions to limit the black vote—such as poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation and even death—were halted. This shows how the VRA preclearance process has been a critical tool to prevent efforts limiting the right to vote in order to ensure that all Americans can effectively exercise that right.
While we applaud the Court’s ruling in a separate case that struck down Arizona’s law requiring proof of citizenship to vote, their recent decision threatens voting rights at a deeper level.
Justices lifted up the successes of the VRA, but their decision wrongly focused on the gains that have been made in the increased numbers of people of color running for elected office and registering to vote over the last 40 years.
Instead, the success of the VRA should be measured primarily by how people are helped or hindered from voting since a key aim of the VRA has been to ensure simple and unfettered access to the polls.
Voter ID Laws: New Era of Voter Suppression
Indeed, in the face of a new era of voter suppression that began in earnest in 2000, the Court’s decision disregards the voting realities that historically disenfranchised people still confront.
Voter ID requirements are the new version of the poll tax or literacy test. Currently, 31 states have some sort of voter ID law. Voter ID laws are discriminatory in nature in their efforts to shut out specific constituencies most likely to lack state-issued photo IDs – students, the poor, and people of color – and therefore are a method of voter suppression.
The Court has recommended that provisions of the VRA that remain intact give disenfranchised voters a means to remedy the injustices they face through litigation in the courts. But as Justice Ginsberg states, the preclearance process by the Department of Justice is a more effective way to remedy voter suppression than individual or class action lawsuits because the process can be completed in only 30 days and it removes the burden on the individual to sue.
Onus Is On Congress to Maintain Voting Rights
But while the VRA has been battered by this decision, it is not completely broken. The Court left open the possibility that Congress could create new criteria to determine which states and jurisdictions need oversight to ensure equity in the U.S. voting process. And there is cause for hope since the VRA has been reauthorized five times since 1965, most recently in 2006 by a broad coalition on both sides of the aisle.
The effect of the Court’s decision will be to roll back hard won civil and political rights unless a polarized Congress can come together and fulfill its responsibilities under the 15th Amendment.
People of Faith Need to Act
This points to the need for action from us as people of faith. Our United Methodist Book of Resolutions calls us to be responsible for the eradication of racism. According to Resolution 3371, we believe “racism robs all human beings of their wholeness and is used as a justification of social, economic and political exploitation.” United Methodist Social Principles call for “free and fair elections” and states, “The form and the leaders of all governments should be determined by exercise of the right to vote guaranteed to all adult citizens.”
On the basis of these principles, we call on United Methodist Women members and the whole church and society to educate themselves about the Supreme Court ruling on the VRA and work toward a legislative solution that maintains the preclearance remedy. Because states and jurisdictions are already submitting legislation proposing voting rule changes, we need to pay particular attention to these districts to prevent disparate racial impacts.