How the Voting Rights Act Gave Us Wendy Davis’ Filibuster

Wendy Davis wouldn't have won re-election if she hadn't challenged GOP gerrymandering under the section of the VRA that was gutted by the Supreme Court this week.

CNN / YouTube

When the Supreme Court effectively demolished the Voting Rights Act (VRA) this week, you’d have been right to think that the decision, penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, was a major setback for civil rights and the quest for racial equality in the United States. But it’s also a setback for the rights of all women, as well—African-American, Native-American, Latina, Asian, and white.

Civil rights activist and radio host Mark Thompson explained it this way on his SiriusXM show Make it Plain:

What they’ve done with the Voting Rights Act is to set up a situation where they can continue to do racial gerrymandering, they can gerrymander Republicans [to hold] state legislatures for decades, and then, at that state level, they will destroy a woman’s right to choose, they will destroy same-sex marriage. Don’t you all think for one minute that this is just about Black folk; this affects all of us.

If you have any doubts, consider this: Were it not for the VRA—and, specifically, the section of the act struck down by the Court—Wendy Davis’ historic filibuster of the draconian anti-abortion bill, SB 5, would have never taken place. That’s because, without Section 4 of the VRA, a redrawing of her Fort Worth legislative district by the GOP-controlled legislature would have robbed her of her seat in the state senate in 2012.

As MSNBC’s Zachary Roth explained, presciently, earlier this month:

The GOP plan radically changed the demographic makeup of Davis’ district, among others, moving tens of thousands of black and Hispanic voters into neighboring districts. In fact, of the 94 precincts that were over 70% minority, Republicans cut out 48 (see maps of District 10 here). In the new map, blacks and Hispanics were placed in separate districts from each other and were outnumbered by the white conservative majority, which tends to vote Republican.

Davis and her constituents had one recourse: The Voting Rights Act. Under Section 5 of the landmark civil-rights law, election changes made in certain areas with a history of discrimination—including Texas and most other southern states—can be blocked by the federal government if they might reduce the voting power of minorities.

Davis’ hardscrabble background (daughter of a single mother with a sixth-grade education, and a single teen mom when she had her daughter) and legislative priorities (economic development of poor areas, education funding, support for civil rights) had galvanized her support among historically disenfranchised communities of color, and the votes she drew from among their members granted her a narrow win in her first run for her seat in the state senate.

So Davis challenged the GOP redistricting under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, based on her state’s place on the list in Section 4 that required “preclearance” by the federal government of changes to voting rules. Texas’ place on that list was well-earned, like the other nine states designated therein, because of its long history of disenfranchising voters of color.

Davis won the challenge, and was allowed to run from her district as previously constituted, eking out yet another narrow win over her Republican challenger.

Now that Section 4—that list of nine states and jurisdictions within seven others that were subject to federal review of voting rules—has been struck down by the Supreme Court on the laughable logic that racial discrimination against voters has been pretty much fixed, Section 5, which allows those alleging disenfranchisement in the Section 4 jurisdictions to submit their complaints for federal review, is rendered moot unless Congress acts to arrive at a new formula for scrutiny. No one expects that to happen.

We know from hard experience that the same people who oppose women’s rights also oppose civil rights law and LGBTQ rights. When progressives prevail either in policy or at the ballot box, it is because of strong coalitions among all the stakeholders. That’s one reason why you saw the LGBTQ-rights group GetEQUAL well-represented among the protesters in the Texas state capitol as the senate debated the anti-abortion bill—which would have closed most of the abortion clinics in Texas and imposed an unconstitutional 20-week abortion ban. That’s one reason why you saw civil rights activists supporting Davis’ filibuster.

You’d be forgiven for seeing, if you did, the Roberts decision on VRA as a strike at the heart of the progressive coalition—because it is. Not only does it create the conditions for cementing the double-power-smashing-whammies of race and gender for African-American and other women of color; it acts as a growth hormone for white, male power. Its effect will be to consolidate power among political entities that seek to roll back the individual rights of all who are not white, male, and heterosexual.

Groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law will have their hands full, because without Section 4, states and other jurisdiction no longer have an incentive to avoid gaming the system for white or right-wing control, and each infraction will have to be litigated on behalf of the disenfranchised—people who traditionally lack the money and access to power to do so.

If you think the right’s attempts to suppress the vote were egregious in 2012, just wait until the next election. Better yet, don’t wait, because your constitutional guarantees will rely on the investment of all in the progressive coalition to stem a growing tide of efforts designed to make some votes more equal than others. It was only hours after the Roberts decision was handed down, notes Rewire’s Jessica Mason Pieklo, that Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a statement announcing immediate implementation of the state’s voter ID law, which had been on hold, thanks to the VRA’s now-defunct preclearance provision.

Wendy Davis, during an appearance on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes, won the cheers of her supporters when she stated her aspirations to run for a state-wide office—maybe even the governor’s mansion. But her future as a politician may depend on such a move, because with the “demolition” of the Voting Rights Act (so described by dissenting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg), Davis’ current legislative district will likely be redrawn in such a way that she cannot win re-election to the Texas state senate. And she and her constituents are now robbed of any meaningful way to stop it.

As Mark Thompson said of the court’s smashing of the VRA: “This affects all of us.”