What's Next for the Voting Rights Act?

Leaders discuss next steps after Supreme Court decision.

Posted: 06/25/2013 06:40 PM EDT

In a bitterly ironic twist, the unprecedented number of African-Americans who turned out to vote in 2012 and the re-election of the nation's first Black president may have played a key role in the U.S. Supreme Court's voting rights decision that has the civil rights community reeling.

The court on Tuesday ruled that times have changed and the formula used to determine which states must seek clearance from the Justice Department before changing voting procedures no longer applies.

According to civil and voting rights leaders and activists, the 5-4 decision could set back African-Americans' ability to vote and seek political office to the 1960s. But instead of poll taxes and literacy tests, they can expect new voter ID laws, polling places moved to make them less accessible, redrawing district maps to make it more difficult for a minority to get elected and other efforts to disenfranchise them.

Texas' attorney general has already announced that a state voter ID law will now go into effect immediately, as well as redistricting maps now that federal approval is no longer required.

Since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, "voting tests were abolished, disparities in voter registration and turnout due to race were erased and African-Americans attained political office in record numbers."

Roberts said that "any discrimination in voting is too much" and argued that the ruling doesn't overturn the law's permanent, nationwide ban on discriminatory voting rules or overturn Section 5, which requires several mostly Southern states with histories of racial discrimination to seek permission from the Justice Department or a federal court before making changes to voting laws.

It did, however, strike down Section 4, the provision that designates which parts of the country must have new voting laws pre-cleared. The court also directed Congress to draft a new map based on current conditions.  

"They're saying in effect that history cannot repeat itself. But I say come and walk in my shoes," said Rep. John Lewis, who in his own words "gave a little blood" in the struggle for voting rights, while others "gave their very lives."

Ryan Haygood, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's political participation group, predicted there will be another rash of attempts to implement laws that could disenfranchise millions of African-American and other voters, especially in areas that were covered by Section 5.

"What the record shows is that precisely where voters of color, in Texas or Alabama or Louisiana or Georgia or South Carolina, are for the first time becoming a majority and on the verge of exercising their political power, it's then when we see efforts to make voting more difficult and obstruction placed in their way," he said in a conference call with reporters.

At a press conference hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Tuesday afternoon, CBC chairwoman Rep. Marcia Fudge said the court's decision was "mind-boggling" and the justices were trying to "have their cake and eat it, too."

Noting that last year alone 22 laws and two executive actions restricted voting rights in 17 states and 176 bills were filed in 41 states, she said,  "Not only should they not have struck down Section 4, they should have expanded it."

So, what happens next?

The nation has some soul searching to do, according to Barbara Arnwine, who heads the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

"Ultimately the question is: Will we be a nation that will have equality of opportunity in all aspects of our lives, especially the fundamental right to vote or will we be a country that instead will try to artificially put power in the hands of the white majority?" she said during the conference call. "What we are heading toward is a nation of continued inequality."

In addition, opinions are divided on whether congressional lawmakers are even up to the task the Supreme Court has given them. Several activists and lawmakers cited the bipartisan kumbaya that resulted in the repeated reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, most recently under Republican President George W. Bush, as evidence that it's possible and even likely that they can reach an agreement on which areas need to have laws cleared.

But that was before the Tea Party came to town.

Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee suspects that in the current Congress there will be "obstruction, delay and the introduction of voter suppression laws."

But Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, remains hopeful.

"I'm confident that notwithstanding the differences that exist in Congress, notwithstanding the presence of the Tea Party, Congress will respond overwhelming to this attack on American democracy. Because the values that are at stake are important," he said.

The court's decision also is a wake-up call for voters who "chose to sit out the midterm elections because no one is running who they think brings enough sizzle to the table or interest that it motivates them turning out," Henderson added, pointing to the 2010 mid-term election when voters stayed home, enabling the lawmakers who led the charge against voting rights last year to take charge of state legislatures and the House.

Lewis also believes that African-Americans and other voters have a vital role to play in the direction Congress takes and how swiftly. He recalled at the CBC press conference how in 1964, after winning a Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King Jr. met with President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House to press the need for a voting rights act.

Johnson, Lewis said, believed that there weren't enough votes in Congress to pass such a bill, especially since the Civil Rights Act had just been made law.

"And then President Johnson said, 'Make me do it. Make me do it.' And that's what the American people must do. Make us do it," Lewis said.

 And they will, the civil rights icon added.


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(Photo: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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