Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) is the section of the landmark civil rights law that designates which parts of the country must clear changes to their voting rights laws with the federal government or in federal court before they can be enacted. That designation is made based on evidence and testimony submitted to Congress during each re-authorization period for the bill, and historically the jurisdictions that have previously demonstrated a pattern and practice of racial disenfranchisement are the ones covered by Section 4. Today the Roberts Court killed it.
The results were practically instantaneous. Not quite two hours after the decision came down, Greg Abbott, the Republican attorney general for the state of Texas, announced the state’s voter identification law—which had been blocked last year by the Justice Department, thanks to protections afforded under the VRA—would go into effect.
“With today’s decision, the state’s voter ID law will take effect immediately,” Abbott said in a statement. “Redistricting maps passed by the legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government.”
Voter ID laws are also now expected to go into effect in Mississippi and South Carolina.
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The 5 to 4 Voting Rights Act ruling, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts and joined by the usual gang of conservative justices, pronounced voting discrimination over, noting that “things have changed dramatically” in the South since the Voting Rights Act was signed in 1965, and because African-Americans and other minorities voted in historic numbers in the last election, clearly the country has become post-racial. “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” Roberts wrote.
“There is no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act,” Roberts continued. “The Act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process.” Naturally then, the most appropriate course of action was for the Supreme Court to render it meaningless.
The Court did not take the VRA down altogether, declining to rule on the constitutionality of Section 5, the portion of the law that creates pre-clearance. Congress, the Court ruled, “may draft another formula based on current conditions,” and in the meantime, those jurisdictions currently covered are freed from the burden of federal oversight of their elections. But by getting rid of the formula Congress uses to determine which jurisdictions need oversight, then leaving to the current Congress the task of coming up with a new formula to ensure voting rights are protected, it may as well have gutted the Act. In the meantime, those states with histories of pervasive racial discrimination in voting are off the leash, so to speak.
“The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent. “The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that pre-clearance is no longer needed.”
But that is precisely the logic relied on not just by the conservatives on the Court, but across this country, when grappling with the pernicious and persistent legacy of slavery and its aftermath as well as the impact and gains two decades of reproductive rights protections have afforded women. The absence of direct evidence of intentional racial or gendered discrimination must mean, they conclude, that racism or sexism no longer exists.
Again, Justice Ginsburg is here to correct the Court’s conservative wing of their willful historical blindness:
A century after the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments guaranteed citizens the right to vote free of discrimination on the basis of race, the ‘blight of racial discrimination in voting’ continued to ‘infec[t] the electoral process in parts of our country.‘ Early attempts to cope with this vile infection resembled battling the Hydra. Whenever one form of voting discrimination was identified and prohibited, others sprang up in its place.
The Texas attorney general’s statement about the state’s voter ID law going into effect came as hundreds of Texans continued to protest—and state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) to filibuster—SB 5, an overreaching anti-choice bill pushed through in a special session called by Republicans to address cutting off reproductive health care and, appropriately, redistricting.
That Republicans in places like Texas would announce a special legislative session to try to pass anti-choice and electoral restrictions should come as no surprise. This is about a consolidation of power, a taking control over people’s bodies and their voices. For them, the time is now. Conservative values do not reach women and voters of color, so they only way those values can remain as policy is by force. And that those efforts would be effectively enabled by Chief Justice John Roberts is no coincidence, since he has made undoing the gains of the civil rights era, and especially the Voting Rights Act and reproductive choice, his top priorities.
“Second generation barriers come in various forms,” noted Ginsburg. But in the case of voting and reproductive rights, those second generation barriers are simply ugly evolutions of first generation ones.