On this dayFeb 27, 2013

Southern States Seek End to Voting Rights Protections

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Despite adoption in 1870 of the Fifteenth Amendment barring racial discrimination in voting, Southern states and others used poll taxes, literacy tests, and violence to deny African Americans the right to vote for another century.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) requires jurisdictions with the worst records of discrimination to obtain “preclearance” from the federal government before changing voting laws.

On February 27, 2013, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, in which Alabama officials argued that preclearance was no longer constitutional or necessary. On June 25, 2013, in a 5-4 decision, the Court agreed with Alabama and struck down the section of the VRA that determines which jurisdictions are covered by the preclearance requirement–effectively gutting the law. Chief Justice Roberts reasoned for the majority that “things have changed dramatically” since 1965–voting tests are illegal, racial disparities in voter turnout and registration have diminished, and people of color hold elected office “in record numbers.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in dissent that covered jurisdictions continue to propose voting law changes that are rejected under the VRA, “auguring that barriers to minority voting would quickly resurface were the preclearance remedy eliminated.”

The decision drastically reduces the VRA’s power to combat “second-generation barriers” to voting, like racial gerrymandering, which reduce the impact of minority votes. “The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective,” wrote Justice Ginsburg. “The Court appears to believe that the VRA's success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclearance is no longer needed. With that belief, and the argument derived from it, history repeats itself.”

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