52 years ago today marks the signing of the Voting Rights Act (the VRA), a federal act that fundamentally changed American elections for the better. When President Johnson signed the Act into law, he said, “It is wrong – deadly wrong – to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.” His words could not be truer: in the years leading up to 1965, states across the country, and particularly those in the South, had put discriminatory voting laws into place to prevent African Americans from exercising their right to vote.
But, the 1965 Voting Rights Act stopped these practices by banning certain voting laws, authorizing the U.S. Attorney General to investigate various state voting practices, and requiring certain states and local governments to obtain federal approval before making changes to their voting laws and practices.
And, for 48 years, the VRA served our country for the better – more people voted and elections were more accessible. In Mississippi alone, African American turnout increased 53 percent from 1964 to 1969. And, while altogether the entire South had 72 black elected officials in 1965, they had more than 1,000 elected officials by 1975. Though there were certainly still issues with our elections, the federal government was able to block many discriminatory laws before they were put into place.
But, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the VRA, no longer requiring certain areas of the country to get their voting laws pre-approved. The Court stated that the formula used to determine what states had to get their laws pre-approved was outdated and thus unconstitutional. In eliminating this requirement, voting became harder across the country. Within 24 hours of this Supreme Court decision, leaders in both Mississippi and Texas pledged to enforce photo ID laws that had not been pre-approved by the federal government. In North Carolina the Governor and legislature restricted registration and in Ohio officials cut down early voting. What followed was a re-entrenchment into the old ways: enacting discriminatory laws and making voting harder.
In most instances, without Section 4, the only way to stop these laws is litigation: a solution that can takes years and is incredibly expensive. And, in the years while the litigation is pending, thousands of people are being disenfranchised. Further, given the leadership in Washington, it’s unclear when Congress will be willing to restore the Voting Rights Act.
But, while D.C. is at a standstill, there’s still much that can be done at the state and local levels. And, without the full protection of the VRA, state and local action becomes even more important.