A Call to Action

What Happened?

On June 25th, in the case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) is unconstitutional. Section 5 of the VRA requires certain states and localities, with a history of discrimination to submit all of their election laws to the Justice Department for preclearance. The government does not grant preclearance if the proposals have a discriminatory purpose or effect.  Section 4 was the formula used to determine which areas must receive preclearance from the federal government. The formula was based on factors that include, but are not limited to a county’s past use of literary tests, and low voter participation rate.

According to the Court, Section 4’s formula is outdated and based on factors that are no longer a concern for this generation. For instance, the Court noted that certain election practices were outlawed after the 1960’s. To further justify eliminating Section 4, the Court emphasized the increase in the African American voter turnout and the increase in the number of African Americans who hold high level elected positions. 

Now What?

Congress is now charged with creating a new formula to determine what areas require preclearance.  The Court held that the standard must be based on current burdens and current needs. However, this decision was a grave blow to Section 5. Basically, until Congress creates a new “current” Section 4, we have no standard to determine what jurisdictions require preclearance.  Unfortunately, this puts voters at risk because the oversight Section 5 provides is basically nonexistent without Section 4. Now, jurisdictions that previously required preclearance are free to make new election laws, until a new Section 4 is crafted. Some counties wasted no time to take advantage of the Shelby County decision. After the decision, Texas Attorney General immediately implemented voter I.D. laws.

Justice Ginsberg’s dissent accurately stated that “in the Court’s view, the very success of Sec. 5 of the VRA demands its dormancy.” It is true that progress has been made in the area of African American voting rights. However, that does not mean the work is done. We see progress because the VRA is preemptive and has historically prevented discrimination. Nonetheless, it is clear that voter discrimination is still a major problem in America. For example, last year, a Texas court ruled against a redistricting plan that discriminated against a specific group. Additionally, we must not ignore the countless preclearance requests denied by the federal government because they were discriminatory. Present preclearance denials alone show that voter discrimination is still prevalent and must be addressed.

Our Role

Moving forward we must urge Congress to aggressively approach this issue and draft effective legislation. As young professionals, we must immerse ourselves in the new civil rights movement and stand up for justice. We are the emerging leaders of our generation. We have to hold our political leaders accountable and take an active interest in the welfare of our country. The Supreme Court’s ruling was a disappointment, but it is also a call to action. Challenge yourself to answer the call.