Gutting the Voting Rights Act… Can poll taxes be too far away?


In a 5-4 decision earlier today, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, stating that the provision, which, for almost 50 years, has required that certain areas of the country with dismal civil rights records obtain approval from the Justice Department or a special federal court before changing their voting laws, was unconstitutional. As Justice Scalia, one of the five conservative justices to vote in favor of striking down this particular component of the landmark civil rights legislation, has described the Voting Rights Act in the past as, “the perpetuation of a racial entitlement,” this really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. And yet it was a huge shock to many, like longtime Georgia congressman John Lewis, an African American who had fought for equal rights alongside Martin Luther King. After watching the high court read its ruling, the Congressman likened the decision to “a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act.”

Richard Cohen, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, put the day’s events in context by stating the following:

From my office at the Southern Poverty Law Center, I can see the route where thousands marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 in support of the right to vote. Today, the Supreme Court basically said that the country should reverse its course.

In its decision to gut key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the court brushed aside the considered judgment of a nearly unanimous Congress and opened the door to new forms of discrimination against minority voters.

After compiling an extensive legislative record, the House passed a bill in 2007 reauthorizing the preclearance provisions of the Voting Right Act by a vote of 390 to 33. In the Senate, the vote was even more lopsided – 98 to 0. Today, by a narrow 5-to-4 vote, the Supreme Court has said that Congress has to start over.

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the activist wing of the court, said that the formula in the Voting Rights Act used to identify jurisdictions like Alabama and Mississippi for added voter protections was no longer “justified by current needs.”

The facts tell a different story.

In the history of voting in Alabama, not a single black candidate has been able to defeat a white incumbent or win an open seat in a statewide race. Black office holders in Alabama are confined almost exclusively to minority districts because voting in the state is still highly polarized along racial lines. This polarization distorts the political process and gives the majority the very ability to dominate the minority that the Voting Rights Act was designed to address.

And yes, places like Alabama in the Deep South are different. Again, the facts tell the story. While 40 percent of the white voting public cast their ballots for a black president nationwide, only 15 percent of white voters did so in Alabama. And as Justice Ginsburg pointed out in her dissent, there are still Alabama legislators who talk openly about suppressing the black vote and refer to black voters as “aborigines.” Freed by the Supreme Court from the protections for minority voters that Congress envisioned, one can only imagine what these kinds of legislators will think of next.

At the conclusion of the great Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march, Dr. King said that it would not be long before the era of discrimination in voting would be behind us. After today’s decision, the path will be much longer and tortuous. But we must not be discouraged or give up. The dream is still worth fighting for.

So, now what? With this central protection of the Voting Rights Act gone, shouldn’t we expect to see a rise, especially in the south, of racially discriminatory voting practices?

The following, from Bill Moyers, is just one example of what we might expect to see in the near future, now that Section 4 has been stricken, assuming, of course that Congress does not step in to replace the legislation with new safeguards protecting voters in these souther states.

NORTH CAROLINA: Republicans, who control both state legislative chambers and the governor’s office, have proposed and/or passed bills that would require a narrow set of photo identification cards to vote, that would cut early voting, potentially penalize the parents of college students who vote away from their parents’ home, and would implement probably the strictest felony disenfranchisement law in the nation. None of these are law, but they would have had to pass federal preclearance review under Section 5. Almost 500,000 North Carolinians lack the ID needed to vote under the proposed law, a third of them African Americans. Hundreds of North Carolina citizens have been arrested over the past couple months while protesting these laws.

And that, my friends, is why we’re going to have to fight the battles of the civil rights era all over again…

And, for what it’s worth, fuck anyone who believes that voting is a “racial entitlement,” regardless of whether or not they happen to be members of the Supreme Court.

[Also, I should point out that I know that everyone paid poll taxes in areas where they existed, and not just non-whites, as I’ve stated in the graphic above. Still, though, I think it’s pretty clear that the intention of said taxes was to raise the barrier to a point where voting was out of reach of poor southern blacks. Now, of course, we have other ways of doing that.]

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  1. Edward
    Posted June 26, 2013 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    I’m reminded of the people in Florida in last year’s election that had to wait in line over six hours to vote because decisions had been made to decrease then number of voting machines in minority districts, and wonder if we might expect to see more of the same now that these justices have decided to cut the legs out from under the Voting Rights Act.

  2. Edward
    Posted June 26, 2013 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    I did a search on Florida and found the following in the Miami Herald:

    The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday gutted a key part of the landmark Voting Rights Act that for decades sought to protect voters, including those in five Florida counties, against racially discriminatory laws.

    In a 5-4 decision, justices said Congress must devise a new formula to determine which states and counties should remain subject to federal oversight of election law changes. They said the current criteria, established between 1965 and 1975, do not reflect today’s racial progress.

    “In 1965, the states could be divided into two groups: those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those without those characteristics,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “Congress based its coverage formula on that distinction. Today the nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.”

    Roberts was joined by justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, joined by justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

    The court did not address the concept of federal oversight, called preclearance, itself. Under that part of the 1965 law, voting changes must be approved by the federal government or federal courts before they take effect to protect minority voters.

    However, without a formula to determine which states or counties should be subject to federal review, that part of the law cannot be enforced.

    Nine states, mostly in the South, and parts of six others, including Florida, had been subject to the law. The affected Florida counties are Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry.

    “Clearly, we won’t be needing to seek preclearance going forward,” said Hillsborough County Attorney Chip Fletcher.

    Last summer, the federal preclearance process prompted a panel of three federal judges to strike down the Florida Legislature’s reduction of early voting days from 14 to eight. Democrats accused Republican lawmakers of voter suppression, and the judges essentially agreed, writing that shortening early voting days was “analogous to closing polling places in disproportionately African-American precincts.”

    The judges later approved a plan under which the five counties agreed to offer eight days of early voting for 12 hours a day.

    “This governor and this Legislature are walking advertisements as to why federal oversight is needed,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

    Facing severe criticism because of long voting lines last fall, the Legislature changed the law again this spring, this time to expand early voting sites and give counties the option to offer up to 14 days of early voting for 12 hours a day, not eight hours as before.

    But Tuesday’s ruling means those changes won’t be subject to federal oversight in the five counties unless Congress acts quickly. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a July hearing to begin the process of retooling the law.

    President Barack Obama said he was “deeply disappointed” with the decision and said it “upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.”

    The whole article can be found here:

  3. Kristin
    Posted June 26, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Could this be an opportunity for reform? Of course this congress is completely disappointing, but couldn’t someone carry forward a revised piece of legislation that would address the concerns of the court regarding the need for contemporary analysis? It could actually, if written properly, expand the protections. Of course in the meantime the Rs will redistrict and impede minority votes, so that champion might not be elected next round. Dingell’s a supporter, and he’s on legacy patrol. He could be the one.

  4. Posted June 26, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand why anyone is surprised by this ruling. While the loss of the law as a method for preempting voter suppression is damaging, I don’t think it really will have that long term of an impact. Also, it is misguided to conflate the Voter ID law with this issue. Voter ID’s are standard practice for most of Europe, and in this country, honestly, how many people without ID’s choose to vote(which is different from those who could vote)? We should use this as a chip to bargain for multi-day elections and a national ID card, and forward the progressive cause by increasing turnout.

    Back to the ruling, this law has just been a corpse pushed from one side of the room to the other. Democrats use it to leverage some level of control over states that don’t vote for them, but are too afraid to expand its coverage to states which actually violate civil rights. Specifically they wont expand it to blue states and swing states. We are convinced that racism is a southern issue, or when we’re feeling vicious, a suburban vs urban one, and we only use this law to promote federal oversight of other people’s problems, rather than oversight of our own. It will be better now that the Justice department will take an active role in prosecuting actual discrimination, rather than preventing discrimination in states whose actions in the past 3 decades wouldn’t have qualified them for special oversight.

  5. Elliott
    Posted June 26, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Did the Supremes kind of make up for it this morning when they decided, in another 5-4 decision, with Kennedy being the swing vote, that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional?

    Amy Howe from Scotus Blog: “Here’s a Plain English take on United States v. Windsor, the DOMA case: The federal Defense of Marriage Act defines “marriage,” for purposes of over a thousand federal laws and programs, as a union between a man and a woman only. Today the Court ruled, by a vote of five to four, in an opinion by Justice Kennedy, that the law is unconstitutional. The Court explained that the states have long had the responsibility of regulating and defining marriage, and some states have opted to allow same-sex couples to marry to give them the protection and dignity associated with marriage. By denying recognition to same-sex couples who are legally married, federal law discriminates against them to express disapproval of state-sanctioned same-sex marriage. This decision means that same-sex couples who are legally married must now be treated the same under federal law as married opposite-sex couples.”

  6. Meta
    Posted June 26, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    From Greg Palast on TruthOut:

    They might as well have burned a cross on Dr. King’s grave. The Jim Crow majority on the Supreme Court just took away the vote of millions of Hispanic and African-American voters by wiping away Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    When I say “millions” of voters of color will lose their ballots, I’m not kidding. Let’s add it up.

    Last year, the GOP Secretary of State of Florida Ken Detzner tried to purge 180,000 Americans, mostly Hispanic Democrats, from the voter rolls. He was attempting to break Katherine Harris’ record.

    Detzner claimed that all these brown folk were illegal “aliens.”

    But Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act requires that 16 states with a bad history of blocking black and brown voters must “pre-clear” with the US Justice Department any messing around with voter rolls or voting rules. And so Section 4 stopped Detzner from the racist brown-out.

    I’ll admit there were illegal aliens on Florida voter rolls – two of them. Let me repeat that: TWO aliens – one a US Marine serving in Iraq (not yet a citizen); the other an Austrian who registered as a Republican.

    We can go from state to state in Dixie and see variations of the Florida purge game.

    Yet the 5-to-4 Supreme Court majority ruled, against all evidence, that, “Blatantly discriminatory evasions [of minority voting rights] are rare.” As there’s no more racially bent voting games played in states including Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Alaska (yes, pre-clearance goes WAY north of the Confederacy), then, the justices said, there’s no more reason for pre-clearance.

    Truthout needs your support to publish grassroots journalism and share new visions for a just and sustainable future. Contribute now by clicking here!

    Whom do they think they’re fooling? The court itself, just last week, ruled that Arizona’s law requiring the showing of citizenship papers was an unconstitutional attack on Hispanic voters. Well, Arizona’s a Section 4 state.

    You’ll love this line from the Ku Klux Kourt majority. They wrote that the “coverage” of Section 4 applies to states where racially bent voting systems are now “eradicated practices.”

    “Eradicated?” I assume they didn’t see the lines of black folk in Florida last November. That was the result of the deliberate reduction in the number of polling places and early voting hours in minority areas. Indeed, if the Justice Department, wielding Section 4, didn’t block Florida from half its ballot-box trickery, Obama would have lost that state’s electoral votes.

    And that’s really what’s going on here: the problem is not that the court majority is racist. They’re worse: they’re Republicans.

    We’ve had Republicans, like the great Earl Warren, who put on the robes and take off their party buttons.

    But this crew, beginning with Bush v. Gore, is viciously partisan. They note that “minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.” And the Republican Supremes mean to put an end to that. See “Obama” and “Florida” above.

    And when they say “minority,” they mean “Democrat.”

    Because that’s the difference between 1965 and today. When the law was first enacted – based on the personal pleas of Martin Luther King – African-Americans were blocked by politicians who did not like the color of their skin.

    But today, it’s the color of minority voters’ ballots – overwhelmingly Democratic blue – which is the issue.

    In California – one of the “Old South” states that is singled out for pre-clearance – an astonishing 40 percent of voter registration forms were rejected by the Republican Secretary of State on cockamamie clerical grounds. When civil rights attorney Robert F. Kennedy and I investigated, we learned that the reject pile was overwhelmingly Chicano and Asian – and overwhelmingly Democratic.

    How? Jim Crow ain’t gone; he’s moved into cyberspace. The new trick is lynching by laptop: removing voters, as was done in Florida and Arizona (and a dozen other states) by using poisoned databases to pick out “illegal” and “felon” and “inactive” voters – who all happen to be of the Hispanic or African-American persuasion. The GOP, for all the tears of its consultants, knows it can’t rock these votes, so they block these votes.

    Despite the racial stench of today’s viciously antidemocratic ruling, the GOP majority knew they were handicapping the next presidential run by a good 6 million votes. (That’s the calculation that RFK and I came up with for racially bent vote loss in 2004 – and the GOP will pick up at least that in the next run.)

    And the court knew full well that their ruling today was the same as stuffing several hundred thousand GOP red votes into the ballot boxes for the 2014 Congressional races.

    The races have not yet started, but the “Katherine count” has already begun.

    Read more:

  7. Oliva
    Posted June 26, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Did the Supremes kind of make up for it this morning when they decided, in another 5-4 decision, with Kennedy being the swing vote, that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional?

    Hooray for today’s decision, but no way does it make up for what the Court did yesterday. So separate and both so important. One so despicable, will hurt us all. Very sad. But hooray for “DOMA kaput,” as my sister put it.

  8. double anonymous
    Posted June 26, 2013 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Whatever this legislation purported to do, it wasn’t working. People were still being disenfranchised. We need something with more teeth. People who attempt to keep people from voting should be locked up.

  9. Aaron B.
    Posted June 26, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    The cases of voter suppression far outweigh cases of voter fraud and yet voter fraud is made to be a big problem (which it isn’t) and used as a reason to limit people from voting. Add to the fire rampant gerrymandering and now the supreme court decision and citizens united…. sickening.

  10. Demetrius
    Posted June 26, 2013 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    We need a new, more robust Voter Rights Act — and it needs to apply everywhere across the USA.

    Easier, more convenient registration; uniform early voting (including additional days and extended hours); and a national (paid) holiday for Presidential elections would be a good start …

  11. Conyers by Proxy
    Posted June 28, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, struck down section IV of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, legislation that protects all Americans from discrimination when they go to the polls. As a freshman in the U.S. Congress, I begged the Speaker of the House to be on the Judiciary Committee because I wanted to help protect the rights of minority voters at risk of suppression and discrimination.

    The harmful effects of the Supreme Court’s partisan decision are already being felt. Just two short hours after the Supreme Court ruling, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott moved a controversial Voter ID law into immediate effect – making it more difficult for those without photo IDs to make their voices heard at the ballot box. The Texas Attorney General also said that “Redistricting maps passed by the [Republican] legislature may also take effect without approval by the federal government.”

    If you don’t think that this kind of voter suppression can happen in Michigan, think again. Less than a year ago, Ruth Johnson’s scheme to require a citizenship check box on all ballots was quashed only after a federal judge ruled it violated federal laws. Republicans like Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and Attorney General Bill Schuette have been combing the state to find instances of voter fraud.

    It is up to us as Democrats and as voters to hold them accountable. Contact Ruth Johnson and Bill Schuette today to let them know that we’re watching them, and we will not stand for voter suppression or discrimination.

    Thank you,

    John Conyers

    U.S. Congressman, 13th District

  12. Frontline
    Posted June 28, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Rep. Conyers,

    Within just the first 24 hours, 9 states moved to change their voting laws.

    This comes from Frontline:

    Within 24 hours of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the law requiring nine states to submit voting law changes to the federal government for pre-clearance, five* are already moving ahead with voter ID laws, some of which had already been rejected as discriminatory under the Voting Rights Act.

    The spate of new and potentially discriminatory laws is exactly why proponents of the Voting Rights Act argued that Section 4, the pre-clearance requirement, should remain in place.

    Before 1965, when the law was first passed, state and local governments came up with ever-inventive ways to keep blacks from voting, forcing the federal government to launch countless legal battles. When Texas was prohibited from holding all-white primaries in 1927, for example, it passed a new law to allow the party leadership to decide who could vote. They chose an all-white primary.

    “Early attempts to cope with this vile infection resembled battling the Hydra,” said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her fierce dissent of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

    “Whenever one form of voting discrimination was identified and prohibited, others sprang up in its place. This Court repeatedly encountered the remarkable ‘variety and persistence’ of laws disenfranchising minority citizens,” she continued.

    Since last year, 41 states have introduced some form of restrictive voting legislation, and of those 18 passed laws. Among the most popular are those that require voters to show a photo ID in order to vote, which proponents say helps to counter fraud — a phenomenon that almost never happens (pdf), analysts say.

    In its ruling, the Supreme Court argued that the federal government can always challenge any discriminatory laws in court.

    Those cases may begin sooner than anticipated as states cast off the VRA requirements. In one of the strongest statements welcoming the decision, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said the law requiring federal approval of voting changes “humiliates Arizona by making it say ‘Mother may I’ to the federal government every time it wants to change some remarkably minor laws.” (The state’s own law requiring voters to submit proof of citizenship was struck down 7-2 by the Supreme Court last week.)

    Here’s a rundown of the states that are already moving ahead with legislation:

    It only took a few hours for TEXAS to move forward on its voter ID law, considered the strictest in the nation. The law requires Texans to prove their citizenship and their residency in the state. To qualify, you’d need to present forms of ID that are expensive and difficult to obtain for some low-income Americans. It requires a passport — the cheapest of which is $55 — or a copy of your birth certificate, which not all Americans, particularly older ones, have.

    A court blocked the law in 2012 because it discriminated against Latino and black voters.

    On Tuesday afternoon, Attorney General Greg Abbott announced in a statement that the law would take effect “immediately.”

    Abbott also is planning to put in place redistricting maps legislators drew up in 2011 that “show[ed] a deliberate, race-conscious method to manipulate not simply the Democratic vote but, more specifically, the Hispanic vote,” according to a court ruling that blocked the maps.

    The Justice Department blocked a similar voter ID law passed by SOUTH CAROLINA in 2011, and a federal court prevented its implementation in 2012. The courts said South Carolina would need an exemption for those who can’t obtain an ID card to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

    State Attorney General Alan Wilson, calling the VRA an “extraordinary intrusion” on its sovereignty, said South Carolina can now move forward with “reasonable election reforms” including its voter ID law.

    ALABAMA passed a voter ID law in 2011, and never sought preclearance from the Justice Department to determine whether it might be discriminatory. It plans to implement it in 2014.

    In VIRGINIA, a voter ID bill was signed into law in March this year, and set to take effect in 2014. Since it doesn’t need preclearance now, it’s likely to take effect as planned.

    MISSISSIPPI also seems poised to move ahead with a voter ID law it passed in 2012, which had been awaiting preclearance from the federal government. The law could require voters to start showing a photo ID by next year.

    The state, long known for some of the more egregious civil-rights abuses, had signed on to an amicus brief in support of the Voting Rights Act filed with the Supreme Court. Mississippi joined with North Carolina, New York and California to argue that the law improved transparency and blocked discriminatory practices before they began. (Read the full brief here (pdf).)

    “It serves a powerful deterrent function that case-by-case litigation would not provide,” Mississippi and the others argued at the time.

  13. tGak
    Posted July 2, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    It’s like watching the tide go out to sea, pulling everything along with it. The very foundation of our society is corroding beneath our feet.

  14. anonymous
    Posted July 3, 2013 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    Someone posted the “literacy test” administered to black voters in Louisiana in the 1960s, and it demonstrates very clearly the reason we need the Voting Rights Act.

  15. sexy older woman
    Posted August 27, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    I’m torn on the subject of voting. On one hand, it’s our civic duty. On the other, it means less time for sex.

5 Trackbacks

  1. […] And this, for what it’s worth, is exactly what many of us thought would begin happening in the wake of the June 2013 Supreme Court Decision. At the time, I asked the following on this site… “So, now what? With this central protection of the Voting Rights Act gone, shouldn’t we expect ….” […]

  2. […] we move on, it should also be noted that, as a result of those 2013 changes to the Voting Rights Act, there were 868 fewer polling places this year than in 2012, and a majority of those closures were […]

  3. […] we move on, it should also be noted that, as a result of those 2013 changes to the Voting Rights Act noted above, there were 868 fewer polling places this year than in 2012, and a majority of those […]

  4. […] and anything else that we can think of to increase democratic participation. We cannot allow the the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act to […]

  5. […] of course, knew that this was going to happen. When the Supreme Court moved to gut the Voting Rights Act in 2013, we knew what the Republican game plan was going to be. We knew that […]

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