VIEWPOINTS: How One Decision Set Voting Rights Back 50 Years

The Mountain Standing Right Behind the Mountain Top

By Ray Curry, Secretary-Treasurer, UAW

This month marks the 54th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), one of the most sweeping pieces of civil rights legislation in U.S. history. This ground-breaking measure, fought over and marched over and bleed over on the streets of Selma, Alabama, was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 6, 1965. It was designed to knock down legal barriers at state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote.

That essential democratic right to have a say in who can best make government work for its people, had been guaranteed by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1870. The amendment stated that the right to vote could not be denied based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

And even though that sounds clear as a bell, the road to the polls was made instead an arduous and at times even perilous one with Jim Crow smack in the way, installing roadblocks and tripwire at as many turns as he could get away with. As originally written, the Voting Rights Act took an axe to those barriers.

But in 2013, the Supreme Court delivered a decision that, in effect, gutted VRA protections. Since then, we’ve seen numerous court challenges and legal maneuvering designed to further weaken the VRA. Designed to obfuscate that mountain top view of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s promised land, that momentous decision put another mountain of dehumanizing anti-voting measures in place.

The 2013 decision did its dirty work by seizing on one of the most critical temporary provisions, known as Section 4.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that many aspects of the VRA are not permanent law. Many of the provisions are temporary and must be renewed by Congress. So, we must continually fight to protect this critical piece of civil rights legislation. We must fight challenges in the courts, fight to ensure the temporary provisions are renewed and fight to maintain the watchdog provisions of the Act at the state and local levels where we see voter suppression.

A dagger in the heart of the VRA

The devastating 2013 decision rendered moot, Sections 4 and 5, two of the most critical aspects of the law. Section 4, which was struck down, provided a formula for the federal government to identify locations with documented histories of racial discrimination. The locations identified under the provision were: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia; three counties in California; five counties in Florida; three counties in New York; 40 counties in North Carolina; two counties in South Dakota; and two Michigan townships.

Section 5 called for locations identified under Section 4 to submit any changes in voting laws to the Department of Justice for pre-approval. Until 2013, Section 5 proved very effective in blocking discriminatory measures. Between 1998 and 2013, 86 proposed election changes were blocked and hundreds more withdrawn.

The effect of scuttling these critically important checks have turned a fire hose on the people the VRA was meant to protect.

Perhaps John Lewis, Georgia U.S. House representative and well known Freedom Rider in the civil rights movement summed up the decision best: “What the Supreme Court did was to put a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act.”

And we felt the pain across the nation.

‘No, you can’t vote’

Here are but a few examples of the rampant assault on voting rights and voting access since 2013.

At least 17 million voters were purged nationwide between 2016 and 2018, according to a Brennan Center for Justice Report. A similar number was purged between 2014 and 2016, leading up to the 2016 presidential election, the first presidential election in 50 years conducted without the full protection of the VRA.

Of note is the fact that those numbers are much bigger than the purge rates in 2006 and 2008. Moreover, purge rates were significantly higher, reaching up to 40%, in those areas identified under Section 4 as having a history of voter suppression along racial lines.

Georgia, (one of the identified states under Section 4), for example, purged twice as many voters between 2012 and 2016 than it did between 2008 and 2012.

Moreover, at least 17 states have enacted new voting restrictions that make it more difficult to register to vote, that curb voter registration drives and decrease opportunities for early voting, and establish requirements for government-issued IDs (a document that millions of Americans don’t have).

That last provision alone has the potential to suppress millions of voters, and it’s clear that strict voter ID laws disproportionately affect African-American, Latino, Asian-American, young, elderly and poor voters.

A Florida measure barred ex-felons from being eligible to vote after serving their sentences, preventing 1.7 million Floridians from voting in 2016, including 1 in 5 black voting-age citizens.

Fighting back

The assault the Supreme Court enabled on voting rights now threatens our democracy and the principles on which this nation was founded. Enter voting rights champion, Stacy Abrams and her group, Fair Fight Action, which is taking on voter suppression in Georgia in the courts. The Georgia suit doesn’t address Sections 4 and 5 directly, but instead challenges the legitimacy of a system that would allow egregious voting disparities.

A May 2019 Vox article on Abrams noted: “Obstacles to voting have created a two-tiered voting system that disproportionately affects voters of color and limits the power of their votes.”

Heading into the 2020 presidential election, we must work harder than ever to protect our democracy — and the right of every U.S. citizen’s voice to be heard at the ballot box, even if it takes moving mountains to do it.

A longtime grassroots activist, Curry is a member of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Nashville, a Silver Life member of the NAACP, and member of the NAACP National Board of Directors. He is also an active member of numerous community and social organizations including but not limited to the Michigan State Democratic Party, American Legion Post 177 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Unique Masonic Lodge #85, Charlotte Consistory #35, and Rameses Temple #51 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and various others. He resides in Detroit.

A longtime grassroots activist, Ray Curry is a member of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Nashville, a Silver Life member of the NAACP, and member of the NAACP National Board of Directors. He is also an active member of numerous community and social organizations including but not limited to the Michigan State Democratic Party, American Legion Post 177 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Unique Masonic Lodge #85, Charlotte Consistory #35, and Rameses Temple #51 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and various others. He resides in Detroit.

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