On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court essentially gutted the most important provision of the Voting Rights Act in their decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. Last Thursday, on the anniversary of Shelby v. Holder, I rode a little over four hours on a bus to attend a voting rights rally in Roanoke, Virginia. We rallied to demand that congress restore the Voting Rights Act.
Though I’ve attended a number of voting rights rallies, and in fact one of my first forays into activism beyond my college campus was voting rights, this day seemed different. A week after a terrorist attack by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina left nine black Americans dead, state sanctioned racism, disenfranchisement, and violence was on everyone’s mind. That day there was a different tone, a heightened sense of urgency, an emphasis on what we already knew, this is not just about voting rights.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 aimed to ensure that African Americans would be able to exercise their right to vote under the 15th amendment. It signifies a long overdue victory for African American communities, a victory fought and died for.
In 1965, six hundred marchers assembled in Selma, Alabama calling for voting rights. On what is referred to as “Bloody Sunday,” the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River, but just short of crossing the bridge were told to turn around by state troopers and police. They refused and were subsequently teargassed and beat with billy clubs. Over 50 people were hospitalized. That year the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would be signed into law. It would be just 48 years later when the Supreme Court would decide to strike down the most important provision in the act, ruling in favor of a county, Shelby, less than 100 miles away from the Edmund Pettus Bridge. As the local NAACP branch leader, Rev. Kenneth Dukes, would say after the ruling: “Shelby County has become the new Selma… Not because of the brutality; we aren’t being beaten. But because we’re still here fighting for the same things, fighting the same battle.”
Shelby signifies a recurring and significant theme we must grapple with in America’s civil rights battles- that victories achieved are not inevitable or invariable, and triumphs always stand the chance of becoming dreams deferred.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, or VRA, outlawed a number of discriminatory voting restrictions put in place to disenfranchise African American voters. The act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, came after decades of civil rights activism and endurance through violent and often deadly acts of violence, particularly in the south. The VRA, fought for, bled for, and died for, was essentially gutted two years ago in a 5-4 vote by the Supreme Court in Shelby v. Holder. In its simplest explanation, the Court’s decision held that the section with the coverage formula was obsolete, essentially nullifying Section 5-preclearance, and preclearance served to protect the rights of African American voters. Without this formula, the VRA is all but unenforceable. The Court knew this, but justified their votes by employing predictable “post-racist society” rhetoric, suggesting that preclearance was outdated and unnecessary. Shelby propelled us back into a newly legislated Jim Crow Era, where voter suppression has soared, displaying just how little we’ve come since 1965.
Living in North Carolina I saw the effect of Shelby first-hand. Prior to Shelby North Carolina was partially covered by the VRA, so statewide changes in voting regulations were subject to review under Section 5. Shelby nullified that. North Carolina jumped on the chance to pass laws unbound by preclearance. In the first month following the decision our Senate transformed Bill 589, a 16 page bill about voter ID laws, to a 56 page “monster” bill that would be the worst voter suppression bill in North Carolina history, and arguably the country. While the bill enacts almost every form of voter suppression imaginable, it notably cuts early voting by a week and prohibits out-of-precinct voting and same-day registration. Notable, because in recent NC elections, African Americans were twice as likely to vote early, use same-day registration, and vote out-of-precinct.
After a challenge to the bill, the Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiffs that eliminating out-of-precinct voting and same-day registration would probably not have survived preclearance.
After Bill 589 passed I became a Vote Defender, and hosted election protection trainings to try to counteract the consequences of Shelby. Defending the right to vote is unique from other voter engagement tactics, because it isn’t about candidates or politics, it’s about exercising one of our most fundamental rights.
Voting is the cornerstone of American democracy, intended to be the great equalizer of our nation. No matter who you are, where you work, or who you know, when you step into the ballot box to cast your vote you only get one, just like everybody else. Access to that ballot box is the key to maintaining the fabric of a democratic nation, and any legislation to hinder that access should be reviewed. Beyond that, we must not only observe the disenfranchisement of groups, but examine the systems of power that result in that disenfranchisement. Voter suppression exemplifies a myriad of social inequalities, so the strategies we employ to combat it has the potential to advocate and fight for much more than voting rights. Shelby shed a light on many of these issues.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 attempted to undue centuries of discriminatory and racist practices. Less than half a century after its passing, the highest court in our nation voted to take away a small victory in that quest. The Voting Rights Act will be 50 years old this summer, but two years ago today Shelby County v. Holder sent us back to the 60’s, reminding us to be wary of unstable victories and showing us just how much further we have to go.