Back in July, the death of civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis renewed the debate of updating and rewriting the Voting Rights Act. However, it seems unlikely that Congress will rewrite the Act before the Supreme Court reviews it again in 2021. Less than a month ago, the Court announced it would take up an Arizona case on whether the state’s law barring nonfamily members from returning another person’s early ballot violates the Constitution and, more specifically, the Voting Rights Act. With the Court leaning more conservatively, many have speculated that the remaining sections of the Act will be struck down, especially if another conservative judge is added to the bench. During her confirmation hearing last week, Supreme Court Justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett refused to definitively answer any questions concerning the Voting Rights Act and related voter suppression tactics. Barrett declined to comment on whether she agreed with her late mentor, Antonin Scalia, who stated that the Act was a “perpetuation of racial entitlement” during the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in U.S. history. It banned literacy tests, established federal oversight in jurisdictions particularly prone to voter discrimination, and directed the federal government to investigate poll taxes in state and local elections. The Act significantly increased the number of African Americans registered to vote, especially in the South.
In the 2013 Supreme Court case, Shelby County v. Holder, the Court struck down Section 4 and therefore weakened Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 4, the majority decided, violated the principle of equal state sovereignty, which is meant to treat all states with an equal hand. Chief Justice John Roberts claimed that the passing years had lessened the discriminatory results in voter turnout and asked Congress to rewrite the Act to reflect current conditions.
The Voting Rights Act post-Shelby County v. Holder doesn’t work. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her dissent, there are still major issues concerning voter suppression and discrimination, and striking down Section 4 makes the majority of the Act difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. Without protection, the rights of all voters, especially minority voters, are in jeopardy. Measures like voter ID laws and poll taxes prevent targeted Americans from casting their ballots, hurting the country as a whole. The voter suppression tactics used during this 2020 election have only gotten bolder, with Republican leaders going to great lengths to limit their rival’s access to the physical polls and mail-in voting measures. The Voting Rights Act was meant to defend the people’s access to the polls, but the Court’s ruling severely limited the Act’s ability to do so. However, that doesn’t mean voting protection isn’t a major priority for citizens. Our officials should be those chosen by the people - if we silence some citizens’ voices, then those officials aren't truly representative of the people’s collective will. We need to start staunchly protecting the right to vote, or it will be taken from us. And the first step is protecting those who are most in danger of being disenfranchised.