The Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder guts the most effective provision of the country’s most effective civil rights law. The opinion by the Roberts Court was the most radical since Citizens United v. FEC and the worst voting rights decision in a century, since the Court upheld poll taxes and literacy tests in Giles v. Harris in 1903. Just as the Citizens United decision led to an explosion of unregulated dark money spending in U.S. elections, so too will the loss of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act encourage many more of the shadowy voter suppression attempts that we saw in 2012.
The states of the Old Confederacy will return to the pre-1965 playbook, passing new voting restrictions that can only be challenged, after years of lengthy litigation, in often-hostile Southern courts, with the burden of proof on those subject to discrimination rather than those doing the discriminating. Conservatives will be emboldened to challenge the other parts of the Voting Rights Act, like Section 2, that apply nationwide. Our democracy will become more unequal, with the most powerful interests manipulating the electoral rules to preserve their own power.
The only hope is that the ruling will serve as a rallying cry for Congress to add new voter protections and for citizens to rally to the polls to protect their most basic rights. This happened in 2012, when a backlash against voter suppression attempts resulted in black voter turnout surpassing white turnout for the first time in history. The “coalition of the ascendant” of young and minority voters that propelled Barack Obama to the White House must now mobilize in unprecedented numbers. The voting rights movement that was reborn in 2012 must expand in order to fight the Supreme Court’s decision and to address the wide scope of voting discrimination that sadly still exists in 21st century America.
Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute. His first book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, was published in October 2010 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. He is now working on a history of voting rights since 1965.