(The Root) — When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in August 1965, he described the law as a “triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield.”
The announcement came with plans to analyze voter-registration rolls, identify communities with the largest numbers of eligible but unregistered voters and dispatch federal employees to rectify the situation. Critics complained that the law represented a federal infringement on activities inside states and said that Johnson’s language amounted to a peremptory threat to Southern states. In much of the South, a combination of legally required poll taxes and literacy tests for minority voters worked in combination with violence, threats and various forms of intimidation that effectively made it difficult, if not impossible, for many blacks and Hispanics to vote.
In June, almost 48 years from the day Johnson declared victory, the Supreme Court invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. The rule essentially gutted Section 4, which included a formula that determined which communities would be subject to something called preclearance — a requirement that the jurisdictions submit every change in voting practices, procedures, locations or election districts to federal officials for approval.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley called the court’s decision “the most significant ruling” in his lifetime.
In the weeks that have followed, states around the country, mostly in the South, have begun to implement a raft of measures that voting-rights advocates say threaten minority voting rights and political influence in a manner unseen since Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. Proponents of the changes insist that voter fraud represents a real, if largely unsubstantiated, threat that states must act to combat. The changes aren’t illegal because even if they may disproportionately stymie some groups of voters, the new rules apply to all.
It’s a situation that makes Johnson’s speech and his metaphor of choice seem not only apt, but prescient.
“Within hours of the Supreme Court decision you had Southern officials saying things like, ‘We are free and clear,’ ” said Sherrilyn Ifill, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s president and director-counsel. “What’s that? ‘Free and clear’ to do what? They are moving to restrict access to the franchise, the most fundamental of American rights. It simply is not an exaggeration to say that nothing short of democracy is under attack.”
Just two hours after the court’s ruling, Texas announced plans to implement a voter-ID law that voting-rights organizations such as the Washington, D.C.-based Advancement Project estimate could disenfranchise as many as 800,000 black and Hispanic voters. The state also plans to implement an altered election district map. Federal courts deemed both measures discriminatory when Texas was subject to preclearance.
Mere weeks after the Supreme Court’s ruling, North Carolina’s Republican governor signed a law that scaled back voting hours and early voting time, outlawed the practice of paying canvassers to register voters and preregister teens in schools who would be old enough to vote on Election Day. The North Carolina law also requires specific forms of ID to cast a ballot and eliminates the option to file a provisional ballot when a voter shows up at the wrong polling place.
“They came out strong with a 40-page plus magnum opus on how we can make it harder for voters who don’t agree with our agenda to vote,” said Edward Hailes Jr., general counsel and managing director of the Advancement Project. Hailes, who is both a minister and an attorney, investigated voting problems in Florida following the 2000 election.