By Rosemary Rivera, Metro Justice Member
The March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act changed the American landscape 50 years ago allowing more access to the ballot. Yet in June of this year, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by eliminating section five.
Sections 4 and 5 (Section 4 is still in effect, but without Section 5 it is useless) constitute what Rep. John Lewis calls the heart and soul of the act. They require nine states (most of them in the Old South, plus a few others outside this region, and also smaller jurisdictions like Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx) with a history of racial discrimination to get federal approval before changing their election procedures. This requirement, dubbed “pre-clearance,” came under attack by Supreme Court Justices Roberts and Scalia, et al., who claim that our country has changed and that pre-clearance has become an undue burden for these states and localities and that the formula for determining how the law applies is outdated and unconstitutional. Eliminating Section 5 lifts the restrictions on states, so now they can determine their own voting regulations without federal approval. Justice Roberts has been on the warpath with a long term strategy about lifting restrictions for these states for quite some time. [More after the jump]
History shows us that the right to vote isn’t enough to ensure that every citizen has access to the ballot. We can fully expect to see the exercise of the right to vote become a challenge for many people of color if protections from Section 5 are eliminated. A shocking example of what could happen without this protection occurred in 2000 in Kilpatrick, Mississippi. Over the years, this small town’s citizens shifted from predominantly white to primarily people of color. When the elections came around for city council and mayor, the all-white council decided that they would just cancel elections! If these protections were not in place, this town would not have a new African-American mayor and some African-Americans seated on the council.
Hillary Clinton blasted the Supreme Court’s decision and said, "What is left of the Voting Rights Act is not sufficient." Section 2 of the VRA says that the burden of proof is on the plaintiff – in other words, the burden is on the individual claiming that a discriminatory practice is in effect after passage. Sections 4 and 5 placed the burden of proof not on the individual, but on the jurisdiction to show that the law was not discriminatory before passage. (it may be a lengthy and expensive process for an individual to boot).
People with limited English proficiency are also now at risk, since Section 4 has been eliminated. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Section 4(e) and Section 4(f) guarantee the right to register and vote to those with limited English proficiency. They also provide a pathway for these citizens to gain information to make their participation a meaningful experience. Latinos, the fastest growing population in the country, are a real threat to the status quo and those clinging to power. Eliminating relevant sections of the VRA potentially puts Latinos at risk of losing access to the ballot.
This persistent nature of discrimination in our country has not vanished. It has bubbled to the surface and threatened to erupt throughout the years. We witnessed the underlying truth of hatred when we saw Obama pictured with slits as eyes during the health care fight. We continue to witness injustice with the acquittal of George Zimmerman. That the highest court in the land has chosen to ignore these telling truths is shocking and disturbing.
We have more African-Americans in prison today that we had in slavery. Places like Texas have refused to put any bilingual poll workers to work despite this being a federal law. Despite all the advances we have made, there is a sinister faction of people who continue to try and undermine those advances while lulling us into thinking that further advancement is not necessary.
The irony of all of this is that Congress, with an overwhelming majority, has steadily voted to re-authorize the Voting Rights Act. The highest court in the land has now placed the burden back on the shoulders of Congress to see what will be done, but now Congress cannot reach a decision. The reality is that the Supreme Court did what many Republicans probably wanted to do and couldn't because they would be seen as racists. But the inaction and the soft murmurs that we don't need to fix the problem speak volumes to the minority community.
A new Voting Rights Act is probably in order -- perhaps one with a new formula that uses current data to determine what jurisdictions need to fall under the VRA, but also one that deals with gerrymandering. The Shelby County v. Holder landmark case may have struck a blow, but activists might want to look at this as a new opportunity to strengthen our system and tackle all the problems that continue to plague our broken electoral system.
We need a new Voting Rights Act that provides much broader protections, and that ultimately focuses on the racial discrimination that persists. Sadly, that discrimination gives rise to many of the other electoral problems we face.