The Voting Rights Act shaped my childhood, though as a kid I didn’t know that. Heading to the polls with my parents every Election Day was as routine as getting up for church each Sunday. It’s also the reason I upended my career as a biologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to start a civic engagement organization, Fair Count. Let me explain.
As is the case with many stories, this one starts with the teller’s parents. Mine were civil rights activists in Mississippi. The determination and sacrifice of my parents and countless others during the civil rights movement paved the way for the landmark passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
However, the fate of the VRA hangs in limbo, and equal voting rights are no longer guaranteed. The United States Supreme Court case Merrill v. Milligan directly challenges Section 2 of the VRA, a key provision protecting people of color from discrimination. If the United States Supreme Court deals the final blow to the VRA by striking Section 2, it would be a monumental step backward for all who fought and put their lives on the line for nothing more than basic equality.
The VRA exists for a reason. Before the VRA, states could discriminate against voters of color through literacy tests or requiring voters to recite the US Constitution from memory—“tests” not required of white voters. The law gave communities of color, especially African Americans in the South, a new avenue to counter voter suppression: the courts.
For decades, the VRA was upheld and even strengthened, until 2013. In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the VRA: Section 5. The court argued that federal oversight or “preclearance” was no longer necessary in certain states that had a history of racial discrimination in voting—but a wave of voter suppression bills proved otherwise. Those very states immediately passed discriminatory laws making it harder, not easier, to vote, such as requiring an ID to cast a ballot, shortening the time frame for early voting, and placing restrictions on voting by mail.
The 2020 Census and subsequent redistricting process offered the first opportunities since the loss of Section 5 to ensure equitable representation via the drawing of fair maps. But instead, many politicians are clinging to power in the redistricting process by limiting, rather than expanding, representation for the growing numbers of people of color.
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As the population of people of color increases nationwide, it only makes sense that representation should increase. However, many state legislatures have done the opposite by drawing unfair maps, and Section 2 protections against racial gerrymandering are the primary available recourse.
Fair maps mean voters have equal representation in government and the majority of voters can elect the candidate who represents the needs of their communities. Unfair maps harm and target people of color. Take Georgia, where Fair Count fought to ensure that the 2020 Census counted all Georgians to secure fair representation. Unfortunately, the legislature ignored Georgia’s growing diverse population. As a result, voting rights organizations and Georgia voters filed lawsuits claiming that the new maps violated Section 2 of the VRA.
More recently, a judge ruled that Louisiana’s new map was discriminatory and sent legislators back to the drawing board. The court decreed that there should be two minority-majority congressional districts instead of just one. The order from the US District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana stated, “The Court finds that Black representation under the enacted plan is not proportional to the Black share of population in Louisiana.” This is an order that Louisiana legislators have defied, despite a higher court’s upholding the ruling.
Our elected officials must be better than this. Our representatives should be accountable to the needs of our communities, but unfair maps like those in Georgia and Louisiana let politicians off the hook.
Ultimately, the fate of VRA comes back to the Supreme Court case from Alabama, Merrill v. Milligan. If the court votes to strike down Section 2, historically disenfranchised Americans will no longer have the main legal pathway to protect against discrimination because of the color of their skin.
True to tradition, I take my children to vote with me on Election Day. Without the protections of the VRA, my children’s voting experience will dramatically differ from mine. If the VRA does not prevail in court, we risk reliving the dark days of Jim Crow rather than the hopeful days the VRA provides each Election Day.