Fifty-three years ago today, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered in Mississippi, where they had gathered to register black voters as part of Freedom Summer. Their murders, and the brutal treatment of voting rights marchers in Selma, Ala., less than a year later, galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965—one of our nation’s most important and effective civil rights laws.
But in June 2013, five justices on the U.S. Supreme Court decided that, in Chief Justice John Roberts’ words, “our country has changed.” That narrow majority invalidated the key provision of the VRA that had protected voters in states with a persistent history of voting discrimination. After the court’s decision, those states were now free to change voting laws without federal-government approval. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who, as a voting rights activist, was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 while marching in Selma, denounced the decision, saying that the justices had “stuck a dagger into the heart” of the law.
Lewis was right, and states immediately took advantage of the Shelby County v. Holder decision. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, then the state’s attorney general, tweeted within minutes of the decision to say that the state’s voter-ID law, previously blocked by the federal government and the courts, should go into effect. The next day, Alabama announced that it would move ahead with implementation of the voter-ID law it had passed two years earlier. North Carolina followed a few weeks later by passing sweeping voting legislation—known, because of its ugliness, as the state’s “monster voter-suppression law.”
The timing wasn’t an accident. As federal courts have subsequently found, it was a deliberate—and successful—effort to disenfranchise particular communities of voters.
Last July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that Texas’ voter-ID law violated the VRA for discriminating against black and Latino voters. Two months ago, a district court court in Texas ruled that the law “was passed with a discriminatory purpose in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.” It was, stunningly, the fifth time a federal court ruled against the law. That’s a record of discrimination that Abbott should be ashamed of.
The 4th Circuit weighed in on North Carolina’s voter-suppression law in July 2016 as well. The court ruled that the law was enacted with “racially discriminatory intent” to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” The decision didn’t just strike down the photo-ID portion of the law. It also restored a week of early voting, same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting, and a preregistration program for 16- and 17-year-olds. At a time when we should be making it easier to vote, North Carolina had—with the intention to discriminate—done just the opposite.
A jaw-dropping Washington Post report last September demonstrated just how surgical Republicans in North Carolina had been. Before passing the law, they had asked the state election board for voter-behavior statistics broken down by race. Then they used the data methodically to target black voters.
Texas and North Carolina are textbook examples of why we still need a fully functioning Voting Rights Act, with its provisions restored. The years of litigation and massive financial investments it took to strike down these racially discriminatory laws wouldn’t have been necessary were it not for Shelby County. And elections didn’t stop in the meantime. Eligible voters were wrongly denied access to the ballot box—and they’ll never get those votes back.
Instead of focusing on actual problems, like modern-day voting discrimination, however, the Trump administration is working to further undermine our democracy. One of Jeff Sessions’ first moves as attorney general was to withdraw the Department of Justice’s long-standing position that Texas had engaged in intentional discrimination in enacting its ID law. As the former head of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, I’m proud of the Justice Department’s work under President Barack Obama to aggressively challenge restrictive voting laws across the country.
President Donald Trump’s recently announced election commission, led by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, is key to his administration’s anti-civil-rights mission. The naming of Kobach is deeply troubling—as reporter Ari Berman outlined last week in a must-read New York Times Magazine story (or as The Root did in May).
Needless to say, Kobach is no friend of efforts to expand the franchise. The commission itself is a farce, plain and simple, and focuses on a problem that doesn’t exist. Voter fraud is infinitesimally rare, as has been demonstrated by study after study. Trump’s absurd claim that millions voted illegally during the 2016 election—an election that he won—is both wrong and bizarre.
Through these steps and more, the administration is laying the groundwork for more voter suppression.
The Republican-led Congress hasn’t helped, either. Despite claims by key lawmakers that they would investigate new evidence of voting discrimination, they haven’t done so. In its Shelby County decision, the Supreme Court invited Congress to pass new legislation to address which states should be required to get their voting laws preapproved. Four years later, it’s past time for lawmakers to act on that invitation.
Thankfully, members of the House and Senate—led by Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama and Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont—are reintroducing a measure this week that will help restore the VRA and that responds to the unique, modern-day challenges of voting discrimination that have evolved in the more than 50 years since the law’s enactment. The bill, called the Voting Rights Advancement Act, would modernize the preclearance formula to cover states with a pattern of discrimination that puts voters at risk. That’s something we desperately need.
In addition to restoring the Voting Rights Act, we need to modernize our democracy by passing reforms at the federal level, like automatic voter registration, and expanding early voting and same-day registration. We need to restore voting rights for individuals who have served their sentences and are re-entering society. And we must, whenever they arise, speak out and fight back against attempts to disenfranchise historically marginalized communities.
The Voting Rights Act is still alive today, as civil rights and voting rights advocates have proved through their successful Section 2 litigation. But it’s time that we revive the heart of that law and restore it, finally, to its full and necessary strength.
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.
Vanita Gupta is president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.