Southern Discomfort? The Future of Voting Rights in the US

Communities nationwide now have unfettered authority to impose changes that potentially disenfranchise minority voters.

Supreme Court of the United States (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Supreme Court of the United States (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Like gleeful children released from detention, officials in Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and other states vowed to enact new voting restrictions just hours after the Supreme Court did their bidding and neutered the Voting Rights Act (pdf).

Free at last, they might as well have said.

“[Attorney General] Eric Holder can no longer deny Voter ID in Texas,” tweeted Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott soon after Tuesday’s decision.

Indeed, states like Texas and hundreds of communities nationwide now have unfettered authority to impose the kitchen sink of conservative-bred election changes that potentially disenfranchise minority voters, which is why the measures had been blocked by the Voting Rights Act before the court stripped the law of its key enforcement tool on Tuesday.

New voter-identification requirements, cuts in early balloting, the end of same-day registration and Sunday voting before Election Day (“souls to the polls”), gerrymandered districts, relocated polling places and more are now all in play.It’s all happening in this open season on minority voting power.

How did America’s greatest civil rights achievement, a law that had never lost a court challenge in 48 years, become vulnerable?

It began in June 2009. While many of us were still distracted by the wonderment of America’s first black president, the Supreme Court placed in the crosshairs the law that helped bring about his election. Ruling in favor of a tiny utility district in Austin, Texas, the court upheld Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The provision, which is the central tool used to enforce the law, mandates strict federal oversight of voting procedures in jurisdictions with a history of discrimination. But the justices affirmed Section 5 through clenched teeth, issuing a warning that escaped the attention of most Americans.

“In part due to the success of that legislation, we are now a very different Nation … Whether conditions continue to justify such legislation is a difficult constitutional question we do not answer today,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in the majority opinion. Continued enforcement, he wrote, “must be justified by current needs.”

Current needs, not historical needs. In other words, it would be unconstitutional to keep mandating federal oversight of jurisdictions that no longer discriminate.