As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act tomorrow, it would be natural to assume that securing the right to vote for people of color could be crossed off America’s to-do list. Instead, it has become clear that the law’s roots are beginning to wither, threatening the integrity of the principles on which our democracy was founded.
A Problem in Need of a Solution
In 1870, the 15th amendment to the United States Constitution ensured (male) citizens of their right to vote regardless of their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It gave Congress the power to enforce the right. Nevertheless, for the next 95 years, some states imposed hurdles such as literacy tests and poll taxes to prevent African-Americans, not to mention Latinos, Native Americans and other people of color, from exercising their right to vote. When those tactics failed, law enforcement looked away—or tacitly sanctioned—threats, intimidation and actual violence against non-whites trying to vote.
After the violent reactions to Martin Luther King Jr.’s peaceful protests in Selma, Alabama were televised, outrage overcame hate, and on August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) into law. This most fundamental piece of civil rights legislation bars practices or procedures that discriminate against minority voters. To ensure that Congress had the power to address nearly 100 years of voter suppression, section 5 of the VRA required federal "preclearance" before jurisdictions with a history of restricting minority voting rights could change any voting practices or procedures.
A Solution in Need of a Problem
It would be many years before the VRA reached its full potential (if, indeed, it ever has) but eventually a movement began not just to decrease voter suppression, but to make voting easier—a goal that should be unobjectionable given that the vote represents the voice of the people. The federal motor-voter bill, vote by mail and early voting were among the successful efforts to ease and expand registration and voting.
Rather than view the expansion of voting rights as the embodiment of democratic ideals, some view it as a threat. “Fraud” is the guise by which opponents of voting expansion have made their case. To preserve the integrity of our elections, they argue, we must guarantee that not a single ballot is cast by an ineligible voter. It is a lofty argument, but the facts belie the clamor to address voter fraud. In the United States, cases of ineligible voters trying to cast a ballot are almost nonexistent. One expert found only 31 credible allegations (not convictions) of fraud in a one billion vote sample. Another said that he could not find a single case since 1980 where “an election outcome could plausibly have turned on voter-impersonation fraud.”
The real fraud is not letting people vote. According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, 22 states have made it harder to vote since 2010. They have enacted voter ID laws, which prevent 11 percent of citizens (and an even greater percentage people of color and the elderly) from being able to exercise their right to vote because they don’t have the proper form of identification. Some states have also made it harder for citizens to register and have curtailed early voting.
Partisanship may have led to many of these changes. Again according to the Brennan Center, of the 22 states that passed more restrictive voting laws, 18 were controlled entirely by Republicans. Both parties are guilty of trying to manipulate the system so that they have a better chance of gaining and maintaining power, however preserving the right to vote would seem to be an issue that is sacrosanct and one on which we can find common ground regardless of political beliefs.
In addition, prejudice appears to have played a role in the move to pull back the right to vote. Many of the changes to voting laws came on the heels of the 2008 election, where for the first time in history, the percentage of African-Americans who voted was roughly the same as the white vote. Seven of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008 put in place new restrictions on voting. NAFSA’s members understand that, as we strive for a more interconnected world, our own democracy must be a source of pride and an example of what works. Even a hint of racial motivation undercuts our belief in our own system and makes it more challenging to build a more globally engaged and peaceful world.
Shelby and the Forgotten Lessons of History
Many of the new, restrictive laws were enacted in jurisdictions that, under section 5 of the VRA, would have had to ask for preclearance from the Justice Department before changing the conditions of voting. However, in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the VRA, eliminating the preclearance requirement. In the case of Shelby County v. Holder, the majority said, in essence, that the VRA had worked and it was time to move on. Unfortunately, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her powerful dissent in the case,
The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective…. In truth, the evolution of voting discrimination into more subtle second-generation barriers is powerful evidence that a remedy as effective as preclearance remains vital to protect minority voting rights and prevent backsliding.
A recent New York Times Magazine article documenting the undoing of the VRA shows the devastating impact of the Shelby case. Before the decision, the North Carolina House had passed a voter ID bill. The legislation was 14 pages long and allowed a wide range of identification, including state college IDs, to be used to prove eligibility to vote. It lay dormant for a few months when, just weeks after the Shelby decision, a new voter ID bill came to light. This one contained 57 pages of the new provisions designed to make voting harder, including ending same-day registration and invalidating the use of student IDs to vote. None of the changes would have been likely to pass muster if the Supreme Court had not invalidated section 5. All of them disproportionately impact people of color.
As one of the world’s oldest modern democracies, we should be willing to take extra care to preserve that which makes the United States democratic. At NAFSA, we embrace educational exchange and global learning not only as a way to learn about others, but to share the strengths and assets in which we take pride. Before Shelby, the Voting Rights Act was one of those assets. We should come together to embark on efforts to remake it so that we can take pride in it once again.
Lisa Rosenberg is the senior director for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators.