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.