(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.
South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia have indicated that they will also implement their own voter-ID laws by next year. And in Florida, state officials are returning to a controversial plan to identify suspected noncitizens and ask for proof of voting eligibility. Suspected noncitizens are once again receiving letters that warn that they can be prosecuted if they vote and are not, in fact, eligible to do so. When Florida sent out similar letters before the 2012 election, the vast majority went to black and Hispanic voters, many of whom were immigrants who had come to the country and subsequently become U.S. citizens.
"When we begin to look at the data we see thousands and thousands of people who have been voting all of their adult life who don't have a driver's license," said Hailes. "Across the country we are talking about potentially millions of eligible voters, active voters who don't have the ID required for them to vote in the next election."
Hailes, like most voting-rights advocates, has heard the counterarguments before. Everyone should have a state-issued identification, and identification is required for all sorts of activities such as boarding an airplane. In fact, public support for voter-ID laws is high. Nearly 80 percent of Americans support voter-ID laws, according to a September 2012 CBS News-New York Times poll.
"This is where people have to put on their thinking caps," said Hailes. "The cost of an ID or the documents that people need to get them are not available or inconsequentially priced for everyone. And we have a number of, shall we say, chronologically gifted Americans, most of them African Americans born at home because hospitals were segregated, who do not have a birth certificate and have never had one. What would you have these people do?"
Also, boarding a plane is a convenience that sometimes becomes a necessity, he said. Voting is a constitutionally protected right.
But even with the preclearance process gone, every state remains subject to other provisions of the Voting Rights Act that the court left intact, said Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice.
Late last month, Attorney General Eric Holder announced plans to use another section of the Voting Rights Act to block voting changes in Texas and North Carolina. And President Barack Obama summoned a group of about 15 voting and civil rights activists, the attorney general and other federal officials to the White House to discuss what the administration can do to help defend voting rights.
"Voters need to understand that the decision in the Shelby County case was a devastating setback to racial equality in our country," said Pérez. "There are going to be a number of advocates and the Department of Justice, apparently, doing our best to protect voters, but we've lost the most effective tool that we had."
The real problem: Voting-rights groups and the Justice Department will have to attempt to monitor thousands of jurisdictions around the country and analyze the likely effects of any proposed voting changes. Individuals concerned about voting rights will have to recognize the full range of policies and tactics that can diminish minority voter participation.
Since 2012, 41 states have introduced voting changes that PBS' Frontline described as "restrictive." Voter-ID laws may be the most popular. But other changes can ding minority voting rights and political influence in less obvious ways, such as making all the seats on a town or city council subject to city-wide rather than district elections, said Ifill, who attended the White House gathering. Moving a polling place less than a mile can reduce voter turnout by 10 percent, said Hailes. Other long-standing practices, such as laws that disenfranchise convicted felons for life, also reduce minority voting power. And some of the biggest and most damaging changes probably won't be proposed until 2014, just before the midterm election season enters full swing, Ifill said.
"This is no time for business as usual," she said. "This is really time for anyone who cares about democracy, who cares about equality, to call their Congressional representatives and say it's time to go to work, to pay close attention to what's happening in their community and report those voting changes to us, to the Department of Justice, to other groups trying to defend this democracy."
Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.