When the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed on the heels of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it was the dawn of a new age in American politics and history. The federal government stepped up to prevent states from discriminating on the basis of race or gender in not only the public sphere, but also at the ballot box. This was a significant moment that guaranteed the right to vote would be protected for every man and woman, thus solidifying their voice in representative government.
Contrary to this spirit, in recent years there has been an emerging movement in some states to once again make exercising the right to vote difficult for some. Eleven states have enacted strict voter ID laws to prevent those without photo identification from getting to the polls. Other states are currently trying to do the same. Nine of the states which have passed such laws would have had to wait for advance federal approval, but since the Supreme Court struck down Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the heart of this historic piece of legislation, this is no longer the case.
On June 25, 2013 the Supreme Court voted in a 5-4 decision that Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act were unconstitutional. Section 4 of the bill determined which states and municipalities must receive clearance from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington, D.C. before making any changes to voting procedures such as moving a polling place or redrawing electoral districts, and Section 5 outlined the preclearance requirement. By eliminating this fundamental piece of the Voting Rights Act, nine states that were previously under the preclearance requirement are now free to change their election laws as they wish along with any other state or municipality in the country. These states are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia,.
The decision considered whether racial minorities continue to face barriers to voting in states with a history of discrimination and whether federal oversight of those states was based on contemporary data.
Chief Justice John Roberts argued in the majority that since the act was last updated in 1975, those states originally under the Voting Rights Act’s jurisdiction have improved voting disparity among races so much that there is no longer a need for federal oversight as required by the bill.
Writing for the dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated that the focus of the Voting Rights Act has changed from “first-generation barriers to ballot access” to “second-generation barriers” such as racial gerrymandering and laws requiring at-large voting in places with a sizeable black minority. Furthermore, she argued that the bill had been effective in preventing these new barriers from emerging.
While the voter registration rate amongst African Americans and other minorities has grown tremendously over the past several decades in those nine states, even exceeding the voter registration rate among whites in Mississippi, there are still strides to be made when it comes to protecting all citizen’s right to vote. This Supreme Court decision has altered the landscape of voting rights across the country. Even states that weren’t originally under the jurisdiction of the Voting Rights Act are seizing the chance to change their laws, knowing the federal government will not block them.
Not a month after the decision, the state legislature of North Carolina passed the most restrictive voting laws in US history. These laws included strict voter ID requirement to cast a ballot, cuts to early voting, the elimination of same-day voter registration, the repeal of public financing of judicial elections, and many other laws that most would consider anti-voting measures.
Once these laws are implemented, they will affect millions of North Carolinians of all races and demographic groups who voted in 2012. That year, 2.5 million North Carolinians voted early, 152,000 used same-day voter registration, 138,000 voters lacked government-issued ID, and 7,500 people cast an out-of-precinct provisional ballot.
A drastic change in voting laws such as this would normally be immediately evaluated by the federal government, but since the Supreme Court decision it will take a year before an initial hearing on the laws and two years before a full trial. This is now the avenue policy groups will have to go through in order to challenge voting laws they deem unfair.
While it may be hard for many of us students at CC to imagine living in a place where it is difficult to exercise the right to vote, especially considering that last summer Colorado passed some of the most progressive voting laws in the nation, there are some states where it is hard for certain individuals to express this right. A democratic government relies on the participation of the electorate in order to truly represent the needs and wants of the people. Barring certain individuals from the ballot box because they don’t have a specific form of ID cuts out the voice of a person who lives and works in this country.
Supporters of voter ID laws say that the laws prevent voter fraud. However, few instances of voter fraud actually occur in the US; these statements only inflate fear so that legislatures can prevent those they deem undesirable from getting to the polls. Voter restriction laws are a threat to our democracy and the recent ruling by the Supreme Court sets a scary precedent for conservative states which think they can travel back to the era of Jim Crow.