While great progress has certainly been made since the Voting Rights Act was put into place in 1965, new barriers to exercising the franchise are being erected at a rapid pace. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act provided assurance that in areas with a history of discrimination, those barriers would receive federal oversight to insure that they would not deter progress for voters of color. With the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County vs. Holder
, jurisdictions once required to preclear any voting qualification or prerequisite will now be left to themselves to determine what laws they should adopt, a “right” the Court’s decision says is foundational for treating states equally. The Court ignores, however, the importance of insuring that laws are in place to treat citizens
equally. In a nation with changing demographics, where a significant percentage of voters of color reside in now-formerly protected jurisdictions, the removal of federal oversight could lead to a sound thrashing of the democratic process.
With protections removed, we will witness a widening gap between voters of color and white voters in voter registration, a decline in the number of minority elected officials and more restrictive laws that impact the elderly, the poor and other historically disadvantaged groups. It has taken a herculean effort of massive education and legal challenges from advocacy groups, nonprofit organizations and the federal government to combat the onslaught of restrictive legislation proposed in the last two years. It will take even more vigilance to protect the progress of the last fifty years and to exceed the promise of current conditions.
Gilda Daniels is a voting rights expert, who has served as a Deputy Chief in the United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Voting Section in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Professor Daniels is currently an assistant professor of law teaching critical legal theory, election law, and civil procedure at the University of Baltimore School of Law.