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Voting Rights, Part 2: The Voting Rights Act

Gather 'round, Couchtivists. Here we begin the sad tale of the decline of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as I summon the remaining knowledge from my undergraduate capstone on Election Law.


In March 1965, a group of peaceful voting rights activists marched from Selma, AL to Montgomery, AL. They were confronted by police, who attacked them using nightsticks, teargas, and egregious brutality when the marchers refused to turn back. After decades of fighting against voter intimidation and discrimination, they would not give up.

Immediately after what became known as "Bloody Sunday," President Johnson appealed to a joint session of Congress, asking for comprehensive voting rights legislation. On August 6th, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act signed into law while Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. looked on.

The sections to know of the VRA are Section 2, Section 4, and Section 5. 

Section 2: Prohibits any voting practice that has a discriminatory effect, regardless of the intent of enactment or administration.

Section 4: Says citizens cannot be denied the right to vote for failed compliance with poll tests (such as literacy tests). Also designates state jurisdictions that require "preclearance" by the Justice Dept. or a federal court in order to make changes in voting practices because these states have a history of voter discrimination.

Section 5: Freezes new election practices or procedures in states that are identified as historically discriminatory, thus requiring "preclearance" for changes in their election system. 


In sum, Shelby County, AL challenged the constitutionality of the preclearance requirement of Section 4. We clearly know that Alabama has a history of voter discrimination, see Bloody Sunday.

The Court held that Section 4, which provides a formula used to determine which state and local governments are historically discriminatory and required to gain clearance before making changes to voting laws or procedures, is unconstitutional. Thus, they nullified Section 4 of the VRA. In practice, Section 5 survives but is effectively also nullified because there is no determination for what locales should be covered by Section 5. (Courtesy of SCOTUS Blog).

Chief Justice Roberts claimed that Section 4 imposed burdens that are no longer applicable to the jurisdictions in question (preclearance areas) because the formula is outdated and doesn't reflect the changes made in the past 50 years re: narrowing the voter turnout gap in those areas.

The dissent, made up of my favorites (Justices Ginsberg, Sotomayor, Breyer, and Kagan), said *cough, cough BULLSHIT*!

Hands down, the best quote from the case is in Justice Ginsberg's dissent, where she said gutting the measure is like "throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet." The Notorious R.B.G. also quoted Dr. King, Jr., saying, "'The arc of the moral universe is long... but it bends toward justice,' if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion." Thus, Congress should determine if and where the law is still needed. 

For more information, check out this NYTimes piece on the decision.

Stay tuned for more Part 3 on how the Shelby County decision has manifested since the 2013 ruling.

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