Hey, We Still Needed That! Supreme Court Defangs Voting Rights Act of 1965

Without the VRA in place, corruption, racist laws, and discrimination can reach new, dizzying heights.

Jun 26, 2013 at 1:30pm | Leave a comment

This week has been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster when it comes to US politics, with a parade of major Supreme Court decisions rolling out while the Texas legislature convulsed over SB5. We watched the Supreme Court gut the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and chip away at native rights as conservatives in the Texas Senate attempted to manipulate a vote, and we woke up to the news that the Supreme Court had ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.

My Twitter feed is exploding right now, updating too quickly for me to even follow, and I’m amazed my client is still able to refresh, actually. People are rejoicing over the DOMA decision, but there’s more than that going on here in this series of interconnected and intersectional events.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court declared that “times have changed” when it struck down the portion of the VRA responsible for actual enforcement, effectively making it impossible to protect minority voters in 15 states. (9 were fully covered by the VRA, portions of an additional six were covered.) 11 of those 15 were pushing restrictions on voting rights, and with the VRA announcement, Texas rushed through a voter ID provision.

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Photo credit: Historian Michael Beschloss

Notably, Senator Wendy Davis’ seat was protected by the VRA. She wouldn’t have been able to lead a filibuster that inspired a nation if it hadn’t been for the legislation that the Supreme Court casually gutted yesterday. The Senators who stepped up to help her, including Senators Watson, Zaffirini, and Van De Putte, might not have been able to stop SB5 on their own, even with the help of the courageous occupants of the gallery.

On the very same day that the Supreme Court took a swing at the VRA, Texas conservatives were ready to move, with all their ducks in a row. Other states are undoubtedly preparing their own attacks on their voters now that they no longer need to be accountable to the government when it comes to what kind of elections-related legislation they pass.

Some people say the VRA didn’t go far enough when it came to protecting voting rights, and they were absolutely right, but some protection is better than no protection, and the signal sent by destroying the VRA was an ominous one. It was a note that the Supreme Court evidently didn’t think it was important to protect minority voters in the US, many of whom are disenfranchised by legislation specifically targeting them.

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Taking to the streets in the Selma to Montgomery March. 

Photo credit: TradingcardsNPS.

On the same day, the Supreme Court was telling us that the Indian Child Welfare Act is not relevant, that a long history of racism and colonialism didn’t need to be considered when looking at the welfare of native children. Even though native children continue to be removed from their families at a suspiciously high rate, and even though they’re wrenched from their culture and placed in white foster homes.

The Supreme Court’s decision on the VRA was a rather dramatic incidence of judicial activism, making it all the more appalling that the very next day, Scalia’s dissent to DOMA, read from the bench, included scathing commentary about judicial activism and the Court’s role in society. Apparently what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander in his eye, because his stance on the situation is nothing more than blatant hypocrisy.

Evidently the Supreme Court is an interventionist meddler in some cases, but a brave defender of the American way in others. And perhaps Scalia is right, because, after all, racism is very much the American way, and the VRA is about the history of race in America. It’s about Jim Crow, it’s about slavery, it’s about the numerous ways and means used to deprive minorities of their votes while on the surface appearing to maintain the rule of “one person, one vote.”

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Solidarity. 

Photo credit: Social_Stratification.

These things, SB5, DOMA, the Baby Veronica case, they’re all intertangled with each other, and they all intersect. They’re all about autonomy, about organizing, about dominant classes in society, and about protecting the rights of minority communities. Wendy Davis took office because Texan officials couldn’t gerrymander their districts, thanks to the VRA. The Supreme Court destroyed the VRA and sneered at the ICWA in the face of a long history of race in the United States.

Now, it’s up to Congress to give us a new VRA; and in a just world, they’d give us one with teeth, correcting some of the problems with the original VRA and protecting all minority communities across the US. Congress would recognize the troubling trend of growing numbers of laws restricting voting rights and making it difficult for people to fully engage with society through the ballot box. Our elected officials would speak not just for the people who can vote, but for the people who should have the right to vote and don’t, because of the machinations of government.

But this Congress is filled with obstructionist conservatives, many of whom were eager to see the VRA destroyed, and who have been delighted by the series of democracy-crushing laws passed across the United States. They’re delighted by this turn of affairs and what it means for their future in office as well as the future of their party. Without the VRA in place, corruption, racist laws, and discrimination can reach new, dizzying heights.

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One of the original Selma organizers. 

Photo credit: Jamelle Bouie

The question is, can people get as angry about voting rights as they got last night, when the gallery above the Texas Senate erupted into shouting and jeers minutes before midnight, making it impossible for the session to continue? Can they get as fired up as Twitter was this morning when the Supreme Court ruled on DOMA? Can that energy be funneled into additional fights, defending more rights, extending equal protection under the law to all of us?

Justice Ginsberg is certainly fired up -- her dissent to yesterday's opinion, also read from the bench, was the stuff of legends. She trashed the decision, the logic, and the court in a brilliant retort to the majority opinion, and her words were a sobering reminder of the depths of political divisiveness in the United States. This is a country where the High Court can declare that access to voting rights isn't a problem in the face of all evidence to the contrary.  

Everyone should have a right to cast a ballot, and what the Supreme Court did yesterday should be fanning the flames of fury in a nation known for its sometimes riotous protest. The 1960s marked an era of ferocious advocacy by people of color in the United States who fought for their basic rights, and they’ve never stopped fighting. In light of recent events, it may be time to return to the streets with direct action and protest, demanding accountability from a government that would have us believe that the VRA is no longer needed. And solidarity should be the order of the day, with people from all backgrounds joining the calls for justice.