The Voting Rights Act: Yesterday and Today

Fifty years ago, the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement risked their lives to secure the right to vote for African Americans, challenging a system that not only disenfranchised millions but silenced their voices and threatened their lives in countless other ways. After continued protests that culminated in a violent confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. Known as the “crown jewel” of the civil rights movement, it not only protects African American voters but has come to serve the Latino community, disabled persons, students – a wide range of minorities and vulnerable populations.

One of the most important parts of the Voting Rights Act has been Section 5, which keeps a watchful eye on states with a history of voting discrimination. Known as “preclearance,” this section requires certain states with a history of disenfranchising voters to get any new voting changes “precleared” before those changes can go into effect. The government, either the attorney general or a federal court, must say that the proposed changes do not discriminate. This part of the law, along with other temporary provisions including those that provide assistance to voters who have difficulty speaking English, was renewed and extended with broad bipartisan support multiple times, most recently in 2006.

Then came 2013 and the devastating Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder that rendered the Voting Rights Act a shell of its former self. In that 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court effectively gutted Section 5 by saying that the formula used to figure out where it applies was unconstitutional. No formula means no preclearance, which means no voter protection under Section 5 from new voting discrimination. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Shelby County sent a chilling message to all Americans who continue to face politically-motivated hurdles on their way to the ballot box. Those hurdles are indeed many. For years the Right has been whipping up hysteria about mass illegal voting that simply doesn’t exist, and continues to use it to fuel an onslaught of new and ever more suppressive voting laws. The Right has passed voter ID requirements that they know are hard to meet, cut back on early voting that they know increases voter participation, and carried out dirty tricks like telling people the wrong date and time to go vote – all to keep certain people from exercising their right to vote. One federal court even concluded that a right-wing gerrymander was done “with surgical precision” to target African Americans.

People For the American Way has called on Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We are pushing back when voter suppression rears its ugly head. But we also have reason to hope. We have seen courts come to the defense of voters and shut down voter suppression. We have seen state and local victories that open up the right to vote to more Americans, like automatic voter registration, where someone accessing government services can register to vote at the same time.

And we have been on the front lines of change. Our affiliated PFAW Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council and Young People For have prioritized civic engagement and trained their members to organize their own communities. PFAW Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network has also seen its members speak up and take action on behalf of democracy.