In perhaps the most important voting rights case in a generation, the Supreme Court issued a ruling this past June22 that has tremendous implications for African-American and other minority voters. The case, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder, threatened to strike down a core provision of the Voting Rights Act. The provision at issue—the Section 5 preclearance provision—serves as a roadblock that prevents certain states and jurisdictions with long track records of discrimination from implementing discriminatory laws. The law operates by requiring these jurisdictions obtain federal review of their voting changes before they can go into effect.
While this case was brought with the precise objective of gutting the core Section 5 preclearance provision, the Court rejected the constitutional challenge to the law, leaving the Act in place to protect the rights of minority voters.
Notably, the decision resulted just one day after the 45th anniversary of the infamous murders of three civil rights workers – James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman – who were shot to death while participating in Freedom Summer of 1964, an initiative designed to register Blacks in Mississippi to vote. The following year, peaceful marchers were brutally attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in an event now widely known as Bloody Sunday. The Freedom Summer murders and the violence of Bloody Sunday spurred Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. By leaving the Voting Rights Act intact, the Court’s ruling helps honor the legacy of those who gave their lives and endured violence to extend the franchise to our nation’s Black citizens.
No doubt, we live in a very different country today. There has been significant progress—more Blacks now serve in elected office, registration and turnout gaps have narrowed, and we have lived to see the day where an African-American now occupies the White House.
Reality makes clear that even with Section 5’s protections in place, minority voters continue to face serious discrimination. One recent example of discrimination blocked by Section 5 includes the efforts to prevent students at Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black college, from registering to vote by threatening them with prosecution. Other examples of discrimination blocked by Section 5 include attempts to move polling places to remote and hostile locations; cancelling elections in communities that have experienced significant minority population growth; and the outright dismantling of majority minority districts.
Given the evidence of discrimination, it is only fitting that the Court rejected the invitation by opponents to strike down this historic and landmark law. Chief Justice Roberts, who authored the opinion of the Court for eight of the nine Justices, declared that “the historic accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act are undeniable.” Even Justice Thomas, the only one not to join Robert’s opinion, could not deny that “Blacks attempting to vote were met with coordinated intimidation and violence,” which was later replaced “by more subtle methods engineered to deny Blacks the right to vote.”
While leaving Section 5 squarely in place, the Supreme Court ruling also expands the number of places that now can seek to exempt themselves, or “bailout” from Section 5 preclearance. Jurisdictions attempting to bailout must still prove they have maintained a blemish-free record for ten years before they can make such a move.
Without the Voting Rights Act, it is unlikely we would have seen the circumstances that helped give rise to the election of President Barack Obama this past November. The Supreme Court’s ruling in this case leaves in place a law that has helped make our country’s political process a more open and equal one. While we certainly have traveled a great distance, we still have a long road to haul in the ongoing struggle to realize the promise of democracy for all our nation’s citizens.
John Payton is president and director-counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.
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