Why Are Conservatives Trying to Destroy the Voting Rights Act?
In 2006, Congress voted overwhelmingly to reauthorize key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for another twenty-five years. The legislation passed 390–33 in the House and 98–0 in the Senate. Every top Republican supported the bill. “The Voting Rights Act must continue to exist,” said House Judiciary chair James Sensenbrenner, a conservative Republican, “and exist in its current form.” Civil rights leaders flanked George W. Bush at the signing ceremony.
Seven years later, the bipartisan consensus that supported the VRA for nearly fifty years has collapsed, and conservatives are challenging the law as never before. Last November, three days after a presidential election in which voter suppression played a starring role, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to Section 5 of the VRA, which compels parts or all of sixteen states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to clear election-related changes with the federal government. The case will be heard on February 27. The lawsuit, originating in Shelby County, Alabama, is backed by leading operatives and funders in the conservative movement, along with Republican attorneys general in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas. Shelby County’s brief claims that “Section 5’s federalism cost is too great” and that the statute has “accomplished [its] mission.”
The current campaign against the VRA is the result of three key factors: a whiter, more Southern, more conservative GOP that has responded to demographic change by trying to suppress an increasingly diverse electorate; a twenty-five-year effort to gut the VRA by conservative intellectuals, who in recent years have received millions of dollars from top right-wing funders, including Charles Koch; and a reactionary Supreme Court that does not support remedies to racial discrimination.
The push by conservatives to repeal Section 5 comes on the heels of what NAACP president Benjamin Jealous has called “the greatest attacks on voting rights since segregation.” After the 2010 election, GOP officials approved laws in more than a dozen states to restrict the right to vote by requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote, shutting down voter registration drives, curtailing early voting, disenfranchising ex-felons and mandating government-issued photo IDs to cast a ballot—all of which disproportionately target communities of color. The states covered by Section 5 were significantly more likely to pass such laws than those that are not.
Attorney General Eric Holder has called Section 5 the “keystone of our voting rights,” and the Justice Department and voting rights groups have argued that it is an essential tool for dismantling barriers to the ballot box. “The record compiled by Congress demonstrates that, without the continuation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protections, racial and language minority citizens will be deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote, or will have their votes diluted, undermining the significant gains made by minorities in the last forty years,” Congress stated in reauthorizing the act in 2006. The disappearance of Section 5 would be a devastating setback for voting rights—akin to the way the Citizens United decision eviscerated campaign finance regulation—and would greenlight the kind of voter suppression attempts that proved so unpopular in 2012.
Overturning Section 5 is in many respects the most important battle in the GOP’s war on voting. As Holder noted in a recent speech, there have been more lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Section 5 over the past two years than during the previous four decades. Section 5 is in the gravest danger at a moment in contemporary history when it’s needed the most.
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The Fifteenth Amendment, which Congress ratified in 1870, states that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Yet it took nearly a century, until the passage of the VRA, for those words to become the enforced law of all the land. “Section 5 was not the first response to the problem, but it was the first effective one, enacted only after case-by-case litigation and less stringent legislative remedies failed,” says a recent brief filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The law led to the abolition of poll taxes and literacy tests; spurred massive voter registration drives; and laid the foundation for generations of minority elected officials. Even conservatives like George Will regard the VRA as “the 20th century’s noblest and most transformative law.”
Section 5 gave the law its bite. As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the 1966 case South Carolina v. Katzenbach, the first of many challenges to the statute, the law “shift[ed] the advantage of time and inertia from the perpetrators of the evil to its victims.” The burden of proof was also shifted to the perpetrators, who now had to show that a voting change was not discriminatory before putting it into effect. “Section 5 gives the federal government a more effective tool for combating discrimination in voting than anything else that Congress has ever come up with,” says Sam Bagenstos, a former deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Obama Justice Department. The law covers all of Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, and parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.