Why the Voting Rights Act is still relevant despite the demographic shift in voting patterns

Why the Voting Rights Act is still relevant despite the demographic shift in voting patterns
Photo by KCLevy/flickr.

It was one of the big stories coming out of the 2012 election campaign – the minority vote. For the first time ever, the rate of black voters surpassed that of whites in the United States, by 2.1 percentage points. According to the 2012 Census report on voter turnout, 64.1 percent of white voters came out on Election Day, compared to 66.2 percent of eligible black voters. Even Fox News agitated about the decisive role the significant Latino vote played in the election that brought President Barack Obama back into office.

The U.S. Supreme Court had the demographic shift in mind when on June 25 it struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, allowing nine southern states to change their election laws without having to demonstrate to the federal government that their laws have a discriminatory effect. The court’s decision came in a 5-4 ruling. 

The Voting Rights Act was originally passed to protect the voting rights of African Americans in the South. But according to Chief Justice John Roberts, the conditions that led to the Act’s passage are no longer in place. “There is no denying, however, that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions,” Roberts said. 

But is it really that simple? Does a demographic shift mean that voting discrimination and the legislation that kept it in check are outmoded?

Marissa Liebling, a staff attorney at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, says the demographic shifts are “fantastic,” and show that long-marginalized communities are finally finding their voices in the electoral process.

But a decision like the one made by the Supreme Court justices during the session that just ended strikes at one of the key reasons that the black and Latino vote ever grew. “There is [voting] parity because those laws exist,” Liebling said. “It is fundamentally important [that] we have laws [like the Voting Rights Act.] They helped contribute to the political participation of minority groups that is now being cited against these protections.”

The reality, she argues, is that minority voters are discriminated against in ways that are much more subtle and that have been persistent all over the country since the Voting Rights Act was enacted.

Most recently, during the 2011 Illinois legislative session, the issue of photo identification laws arose. More than 30 states across the country, including Illinois, introduced laws mandating that voters would have to present government-issued photo IDs to vote. While having a government-issued photo ID was put forward as “common sense” by supporters of the restrictive voting legislation, the elderly, African Americans and the low-income are among the 11 percent of voters who don’t have photo IDs. While many of the state-level laws were knocked down before they could take effect, advocates see them as a troubling trend toward voting rights restrictions.

That these restrictions happened at the state level was used by Color of Change, a non-profit advocating to ensure that people of all races are equally represented in the political system, to argue that without a federal law guaranteeing the freedom to vote, the political system would become “separate and unequal.”

“Each state sets its own electoral rules, leading to confusing and sometimes contradictory policies with regard to polling hours, registration requirements, voting equipment, ex-felon rights and even ballot design. The result is an electoral system divided,” Color of Change wrote in an email message decrying the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act decision.

In Illinois, voters can come up against multiple challenges at the polls, said Rebecca Reynolds, executive director of Chicago Votes, a volunteer-run voter registration and advocacy group focused on the youth vote. These include voting locations that change at the last minute, voters who registered in one city not being allowed to vote in another, and until recently the unavailability of online voter registration, Reynolds said.

Those are the types of logistical challenges that can keep the most vulnerable populations from coming to the polls, Reynolds explained.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in the midst of the civil rights movement, in light of anti-discrimination laws not being adequate enough to ensure that the voting rights of African-Americans in the then recently desegregated South were fully protected.

Now, as many forms of segregation and discrimination still persist, some are calling for a renewed movement to protect the rights of minorities, including voting.

“We still need to build a voting rights movement,” Reynolds said. “We need to build a path to a new voter registration act so it can ensure the voting rights of all eligible Americans.”

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