Forty-nine years after the signing of the Voting Rights Actand one year after the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision gutted a vital protection of that act, a new report from the National Commission on Voting Rights found frequent and ongoing voting rights discrimination.
The high court’s decision in Shelby invalidated Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act, or VRA, sections which required federal approval of election law changes in certain jurisdictions with a history of discrimination. That decision does not reflect the reality at the ballot box, voting advocates said.
“It (the report) challenges the Supreme Court’s rationale in the Shelby case that improvements in minority citizens’ rate of voting and registration and the success of minority candidates indicated that the coverage formula for protecting minority voters was unconstitutionally outdated,” Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the lead organization supporting the commission, said during a press call Aug. 6.
“The findings actually show that contrary to the Court’s assertions, voting discrimination is still rampant, and that the states and localities previously covered by Sections 4 and 5, the VRA provision struck down by the Court, continue to implement voting laws and procedures that disproportionately affect African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans,” she said,
The report, “Protecting Minority Voters: Our Work Is Not Done” examined the record of voting rights enforcement and elections laws in the U.S. since 1995.
In that time, the report found:
- There were at least 332 successful voting rights lawsuits and denials of Section 5 preclearance by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and another 10 non-litigation settlements from 1995 through 2013.
- Discriminatory redistricting plans and at-large elections were the most common forms of discrimination, prompting the most successful lawsuits under Section 2 of the VRA. However, there were also 48 successful lawsuits and 10 non-litigation settlements relating to language translation and assistance.
- States in the South and Southwest that were previously covered under Section 5 had the worst records of blocking free access to the ballot box, with Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina and Georgia ranking as the most frequent and egregious offenders. In fact, 72 percent of successful Section 2 claims were in jurisdictions previously covered by Section 5, Arnwine said.
The Commission was formed in 2013 in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby, just as previous iterations of the Commission were pulled together to amass a record on voting rights that helped Congress in its reauthorizations of the VRA.
“The new reconstituted commission took up the charge from the Supreme Court that we need to look at the current data to [recalibrate] the current need for the Voting Rights Act and Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act,” said Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Voting Rights Project.
The commission, comprised of The Lawyers’ Committee and more than a dozen other partners, conducted 25 regional and state-based hearings between June 2013 and May. Almost 500 witnesses testified at the hearings on matters related to racial voting discrimination and election administration issues.
The report highlights those testimonies, analyses restrictive state voting laws and practices that make it harder for minorities to vote and even assesses the impact Shelby has had on protecting voting rights.
For example, the report notes, due to Shelby, the Justice Department is no longer deploying federal observers to monitor elections in formerly covered states. The federal observer program provided an important deterrence against voter discrimination with 10,702 observers deployed from 1995 to 2012.
National Commission on Voting Rights members hoped their report will inform legislative and other actions to restore the VRA.
“I believe that the report that we are releasing today provides clear evidence of the continued need for strong voting rights legislation to protect the rights of all Americans to cast a free and unfettered ballot,” said NAACP Vice Chair Leon Russell, a National Commission on Voting Rights commissioner. “These efforts are current and ongoing.”
The report’s executive summary, report, supplemental appendices with tables, maps, legal cases listings by state and hearing highlights and photographs, as well as more information on the National Commission on Voting Rights can be found at: www.votingrightstoday.org.