Today marks the one year anniversary of Shelby County v. Holder, in which the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), essentially gutting the heart of the legislation.
Section 5 of the VRA requires federal government approval for any election law changes—issues ranging from polling site locations to redrawing congressional district lines—in jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices. But one year ago, the Supreme Court held unconstitutional the formula used to determine which states and localities would have to submit their voting changes to the federal government, finding its origins in voting statistics and statutes from decades past too attenuated to justify present day federal intervention.
In Shelby, Chief Justice Roberts cited advances in minority voting and registration in the covered jurisdictions, noting that African American turnout surpasses white turnout in some of the previously covered states.
But Justice Ginsburg, in her powerful dissent, analogized striking down key parts of the VRA to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” In essence Justice Ginsburg predicted that, without the protections of the VRA, voter suppression problems would rain down on those formerly covered jurisdictions once more.
Indeed, a new report by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights suggests that the skies remain ominously overcast. Moments after the Supreme Court announced its decision, Texas implemented voter ID and redistricting laws previously held invalid under Section 5. Alabama and Mississippi similarly moved forward with voter ID laws previously held at bay. Weeks after the decision, North Carolina acted to eliminate same-day voter registration, restrict early voting, and enact one of the toughest voter ID laws in the country.
Virginia further tightened a voter ID law previously approved by the Department of Justice in a more lenient form. Around the country, legislators continue to introduce new bills that threaten to restrict the right to vote.
The impact of these laws on minority voters remains to be seen, and some face legal obstacles before going into effect. Recent federal court decisions in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania invalidating voter ID laws demonstrate that avenues may remain for federal enforcement of voting rights. And efforts are ongoing to revive Section 5 through litigation and through new legislation. But the developments in the one year since Shelby County serve as an important reminder that the right to vote remains tenuous and must be vigilantly protected, particularly without the safeguards of Section 5.