by Nicole Flatow
On the 47th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the law that ushered in a period of dramatic expansion in our democracy is facing both direct and symbolic threats.
With five challenges to the law’s central provision filed just this year, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to take up the constitutionality of Section 5, which requires jurisdictions with a discriminatory history to obtain federal approval of any election law changes. Chief Justice John Roberts punted on the question in a 2009 case.
Ironically, this Section has become more crucial than ever as the U.S. Department of Justice relies upon the law to challenge some of the harsh new voting restrictions in states subject to preclearance like Texas, South Carolina and Florida.
But even in states that are not subject to the Voting Rights Act and have imposed laws to limit voter registration, to require photo IDs, and to limit early voting, this year marks a step backwards from the VRA’s historic expansion of the right to vote.
During a panel at the American Constitution Society 2012 National Convention, the Brennan Center for Justice’s Nicole Austin-Hillery remarked that this “this is really the first time” since the passage of that 1965 law that the “we have been in a country that is actually going backwards,” in which states are introducing laws “that have the effect of making it harder for people to register to vote, of making it harder for people to actually go and cast a vote.”
“This is a key shift in terms of our country and how we are dealing with our citizenry,” said Austin-Hillery.
And this contraction in the right to vote followed a 2008 election with unprecedented levels of participation by people of color and others, added fellow panelist Ryan P. Haygood, the director of the Political Participation Group at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Alarmingly, a recent study by the University of Delaware Center for Political Participation found that support for the harsh voter ID laws “is strongest among Americans who harbor negative sentiments toward African Americans.”
Jamelle Bouie writes in The American Prospect: “With the fight over who deserves to vote having been reignited by the partisan push for voter identification, and with conservatives mounting legal attacks on key provisions of the Act, it’s worth noting the degree to which the VRA was a milestone for democracy in this country.
Here’s the big picture: African Americans have spent the vast majority of their time in this country—177 years, starting from the ratification of the Constitution—without the right to vote, or the ability to exercise it. This history should serve as a reminder; voter identification laws are so pernicious because for the most part, they are a disgraceful callback to a time when political parties used government to keep citizens from exercising their rights.