2012 Showed Us the Law Is Still Needed
By Elizabeth Wydra
Certainly there has been significant progress in the struggle to protect voting rights, which is cause for celebration, but the Voting Rights Act is absolutely still needed. Before Congress reauthorized the act in 2006, it amassed a record of over 15,000 pages demonstrating that state-sponsored racial discrimination in voting continues to be concentrated in the jurisdictions long covered by the Voting Rights Act. Indeed, Congress found that many of the same state and local governments that had flouted the 15th Amendment’s guarantee of a right to vote free from racial discrimination, requiring Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965, continue to engage in systematic racial discrimination in voting.
The 2012 election proved that the Voting Rights Act is still our nation’s first and best defense against efforts to disenfranchise American voters. In the run-up to the 2012 election, state and local officials attempted to put in place restrictive voter ID laws, shorten early voting hours and make it more difficult to register to vote. These efforts included Texas’s stringent voter ID law, which would have disenfranchised low-income Texas citizens, who are disproportionately African-American and Hispanic, as well as the state’s discriminatory redistricting plan, and Florida’s attempts to slash the period for early voting, which is disproportionally used by African-American voters.
These restrictions would have had the greatest impact on young, minority, elderly and poor voters. Fortunately, some of the worst of these restrictions — including the laws in Florida and Texas — were blocked under the Voting Rights Act by federal courts, including conservative judges, or the Department of Justice. Despite considerable progress toward the goal of a multiracial democracy demanded by the 15th Amendment, Congress was right to find that the Voting Rights Act still serves the vital goal of preventing racial discrimination in voting.
It is not the Supreme Court’s job to second-guess Congress’s decision. The Constitution unquestionably gives Congress the authority to determine how best to protect voting rights through “appropriate legislation.” In the wake of the Civil War, the framers of the 15th Amendment were reluctant to leave the courts with sole responsibility for protecting against racial discrimination in voting — unsurprising, given that the amendment was drafted and ratified just a few years after the Supreme Court issued the infamous Dred Scott ruling. How do we know that the 2006 reauthorization was “appropriate legislation”? Those 15,000-plus pages of evidence.
Perhaps this clear constitutional grant of discretion to Congress is why there has been a dearth of support from prominent conservative scholars and political figures for the lawsuits aimed at dismantling the Voting Rights Act. In fact, Richard Thornburgh, who was attorney general for President Ronald Reagan, signed on to one of the most powerful briefs supporting the Voting Rights Act filed in the Supreme Court Shelby County case, and prominent conservatives like Ramesh Ponnuru have emphasized that it is up to Congress — not the courts and certainly not state officials — to figure out how best to make the Constitution’s promise of voting equality a reality. Americans from across the ideological spectrum should recognize that the Voting Rights Act enforces the 15th Amendment’s clear constitutional prohibition on racial discrimination in voting and is as vital today as when first passed.
Elizabeth Wydra is chief counsel of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a public interest law firm, think tank and action center, which filed a “friend of the court” brief at the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.