The Past is Prologue

Last weekend, Charlottesville, Virginia saw violence borne out of a resurgence of white supremacism.

The events in Charlottesville recall Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s acute dissent in the Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder, where the Roberts Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, effectively ending the requirement that regions with records of severe voter discrimination obtain prior approval for any changes to their voting laws.  In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg recounted that the jurisdictions covered by the Voting Rights Act “have a unique history of problems with racial discrimination in voting…[a] long history, still in living memory.”  “‘[W]hat’s past is prologue,’” she warned, quoting Shakespeare, “And ‘[t]hose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’”  

Throughout the weekend, the living memory of the Charlottesville region was salient.  Charlottesville has a history of racism and discrimination so entrenched that the city was among the jurisdictions required to obtain pre-clearance for voting procedure changes under the Voting Rights Act until it was struck down. “The images out of Charlottesville, Virginia, on Friday and Saturday are unsettling—but also pathetic, also exasperating—for their boring timelessness,” denounced Vinson Cunningham in The New Yorker.  In Charlottesville and elsewhere, the hate of old is wreaking new terror.

In her Shelby dissent, Justice Ginsburg cautioned that threats to voting rights, too, remain pernicious.  “Volumes of evidence supported Congress’ de­termination that the prospect of retrogression was real,” Justice Ginsburg emphasized.  Nevertheless, the Roberts Court revealed a staggering heedlessness, striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act and eviscerating one of our democracy’s most effective safeguards.  The backsliding has already begun.

Justice Ginsburg’s forewarning, though, turns more solemn in the wake of Charlottesville.  The riots represent real retrogression.  Among the ramifications will likely be an escalation in voter suppression, which is often an apparatus of institutional racism.   Voting rights advocates must continue to confront the considerable consequences.

Take Action

We must take action to restore the Voting Rights Act. Call your representative and senators today and ask them to support a bill that defines a new formula for determining which jurisdictions are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, requiring federal pre-clearance for changes in voting procedure.  Without a coverage formula, we are deprived of a proven remedy for blocking voting discrimination, and the right to vote—one of the fundamental rights of our democracy—is weakened.

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