50 Years After the Voting Rights Act, Courts Play a Key Role in Protecting Access to the Ballot

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On a hot summer day last month in North Carolina, protesters gathered outside the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem to demand the right to vote for the state’s black citizens.

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Inside the courtroom, Carnell Brown recounted his own story of disenfranchisement: Brown—a retiree who spent decades sharecropping cotton—had attempted to cast an early ballot in the last election but was turned away because of a new state law that drastically slashed opportunities to vote. When asked by attorneys whether the ability to vote was important to him, Brown simply stated, “I want to be heard.”

Fifty years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, advocates like Brown are still fighting for access to the ballot. Even though the last two presidential elections had record turnouts, especially among young and nonwhite voters, progress has stalled and, in some ways, rolled back.

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Recent voter-suppression bills popping up across the country have disproportionately affected (pdf) black voters like Brown, who was testifying in an ongoing federal trial over one such bill in North Carolina. The president of the North Carolina NAACP outside the courthouse declared, “This is our Selma.”

In the two years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down, in Shelby County v. Holder, a provision of the Voting Rights Act that gave the Department of Justice a key role in protecting voting rights, advocates have turned to state and federal courts to protect the right to vote. North Carolina is just one of several states now facing litigation in state and federal courts over bills that voting-rights advocates claim have disenfranchised voters of color.

The North Carolina bill was unique because it rolled many voter-suppression measures that limit access to voting—voter-ID requirements, cuts to early voting, ending preregistration, etc.—into one piece of legislation.

Before the Shelby ruling, states with a history of disenfranchising voters of color had to have new voting laws “precleared” by the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C. But the Supreme Court concluded that times had changed in the South and states could not be subjected to preclearance based on a history of voter suppression 50 years ago.

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Five decades may have passed, but voting-rights advocates continue to point out how states in the South make it much harder to vote. In fact, a Center for American Progress report assessing the health of state democracies assigned the nine states that were fully subject to preclearance a grade of D-plus or lower when it came to access to voting.

All nine states are also experiencing rapid demographic shifts, which will lead to their eligible voting populations being considered “majority minority” or “near-majority minority” by 2060. In fact, the voting population of Texas will be at majority-minority status by 2019. As new voters enter the electorate, it is important, now more than ever, that their right to vote—free of barriers and discrimination—is guaranteed.

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Until lawmakers in Congress come together and pass legislation that restores preclearance provisions under the Voting Rights Act and advances protections for all voters, judges will continue to play a key role in deciding whether voters can access the ballot. This includes how state courts will rule on redistricting cases since the Supreme Court this year declared the Alabama redistricting map unconstitutional (pdf), finding that legislators had discriminated against black voters by “packing” them into a few congressional districts.

State and federal courts are key to holding legislatures accountable for laws that discriminate against certain voters. The access that a voter has to the ballot should not be determined by zip code, race or age, but often we find barriers to the franchise a reality for too many Americans. Judges should be mindful of their responsibility to strike down voting laws that disadvantage communities of color, and states must ensure a fair playing field for voters challenging disenfranchisement. If not, consider the consequences of where we could be 50 years from now.

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The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

Michele L. Jawando is the vice president for legal progress at the Center for American Progress, where she focuses on the judicial system, democracy and voting, civil rights, criminal justice, and race and ethnicity.

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