It’s no secret that certain groups of voters have been disenfranchised in the past. African American voters in the South routinely faced egregious obstacles to voting, including poll taxes, difficult registration processes in which black voters were not given adequate information, literacy tests that white voters could be grandfathered out of, and even outright violence. Fortunately, the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965. This piece of legislation echoed the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which give Constitutional rights to black Americans, respectively abolishing slavery, giving blacks full rights as citizens, and giving all citizens, regardless of race, the right to vote.
Democracy rests on the ability of all people, regardless of color, to take part in their government. Democracy rests on the nation having a body of elected officials that truly represent the needs of the people they act for. By making it very difficult for election practices to be discriminatory toward minorities, the American government moved much closer to being a true representative democracy. The Voting Rights Act allowed the federal government to ensure that these rights were not being abridged in various elections. States that had a history of discriminatory voting practices had to have the approval of the Department of Justice before enacting any changes to their voting practices. Congress renewed the Voting Rights Act with overwhelming support in 2006, with the House voting 390-33 and the Senate unanimously supporting it.
However, the act is currently being examined by the Supreme Court in the case of Shelby County, Ala., v. Holder. In 2006, Calera, Alabama enacted a discriminatory redistricting plan that led to the defeat of the city’s only black councilman. Calera did not seek approval before enacting this new plan, and Calera was required to draw a new redistricting plan– a nondiscriminatory one– and to conduct a new election. This councilman, Ernest Montgomery, regained his seat after this election. Shelby County then filed suit challenging the Voting Rights Act.
If the Supreme Court cuts down the powers given to the federal government in the Voting Rights Act, states with a history of discriminatory election practices will not be required to run changes to election practices by the Department of Justice any longer—they can immediately go into effect. This would allow states to create highly questionable requirements of voters, or to redistrict voting areas in favor of white candidates, without any oversight by the federal government.
In a nutshell, many are questioning the need for federal oversight of election practices. Leading this argument in the Supreme Court is Justice Scalia, a conservative justice who was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1986, making him the longest-serving justice currently serving on the Court.
Scalia has called this piece of legislation a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
Scalia, accompanied by the other conservative justices in the Supreme Court (Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Kennedy, Justice Thomas, Justice Scalia, and Justice Alito), believe that racism and racial injustices are a thing of the past in America.
“Times change,” Justice Kennedy said during oral arguments.
The belief that racism is a thing of the past is frankly delusional. The United States has seen racist behavior in election processes in the very recent past. Because of the Voting Rights Act, election changes were shot down in Texas and South Carolina just in 2012.
Racism is not limited to the South, but it continues to be especially apparent in those states that are monitored by the Voting Rights Act. To think that we are a nation that truly considers all races equal is a nice thought, but it is not a thought that acknowledges the real social injustices of our time. America has certainly improved for people of color since the Voting Rights Act was first adopted in 1965, but it certainly has a long way to go until it reaches true equality. Minorities are still generally born with fewer opportunities than whites, and the country is not as socially mobile as many believe. Minorities are born with fewer privileges than white people, and unfortunately, many do not have the opportunity to rise out of cyclical poverty. The wealth gap in the United States is increasing: the median wealth of white households is 20 times greater than the median wealth of black households, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center. America is still battling racism, even though that battle is much quieter now than it was 40 years ago.
If the Supreme Court allows the Voting Rights Act to be gutted, America may see discriminatory election practices take hold of certain states once again. The United States could be taking a step away from a truly representative democracy, and all citizens, regardless of color, should be very concerned.
Class of 2014 at Concordia College. Majoring in Political Science and Philosophy. Involved in Student Government and, of course, The Concordian.