Perhaps you all haven’t noticed, but it turns out that we, the people, elected a Black president! Not once, but TWICE! This, of course, is unacceptable and can never. happen. again. Did we mention that it is a great time to revisit the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act, which is just a coincidence and has nothing to do with the unacceptability of having elected a Black president? Twice?
Here, let us explain at you about the Voting Right Act and what it is, and what certain people (YOU KNOW WHO WE MEAN) are saying about why we don’t need it, and what will probably happen to it.
Why did we need the Voting Rights Act when it was passed?
Some time after the slaves were freed, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing that the rights of American (male) citizens “shall not be denied or abridged…on account of race, colour or previous condition of servitude.” Sounds pretty straightforward, right? No, of course it doesn’t, it only says that you cannot abridge voting rights due to race, colour, or previous condition of servitude but doesn’t say if you can abridge voting rights on account of, say, literacy. Or failing to correctly fill out a four-page “voting application.” The remedy to these problems came in the form of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was intended to empower the feds to override the whims of state officials resisting the Fifteenth Amendment 90 years after its passage.
Why was it passed in 1965 and not, say, 90 years earlier?
A lot of reasons. Before, the Justice Department was dealing with voting disenfranchisement on a case-by-case basis, but this was ineffective. Also, when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in to law, the Southern Freedom Movement was in full swing, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had been established specifically to pressure Congress to pass this kind of legislation, and civil rights activists had been brutally attacked six months earlier.
What did it do?
A bunch of stuff–eradicated poll taxes and literacy tests, etc. But the thing that is at issue right now is the establishment of “pre-clearance,” wherein states with a history of discriminatory voting practices are required by Section Five of the VRA to get Justice Department permission before making changes to election procedures.
These states wouldn’t happen to be in the South, would they?
Actually, most of them are but not all of them. The states affected by Section 5 include Texas, South Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia and Alaska and parts of Florida, California, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, Michigan and New Hampshire. They should also really include anything within spitting distance of Boston, but you can’t win ‘em all.
What exactly is their problem with pre-clearance?
There are quite a few “theys” who have a problem with pre-clearance! First, we have the states themselves, who say that (basically) it’s not fair to single them out. Also, pre-clearance is really hard, you guys, and they don’t feel like dealing with it. And racism is in the past, why are we living in the past? Then, of course, we have people like Justice Scalia, who feels that Section 5 is equivalent to the “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” And finally, there exist white men like this person, who will mansplain to you that no Black people ever have a problem voting, so we should therefore get rid of pre-clearance forever.
Do we need this thing anymore? We have a Black president. And Oprah. And didn’t Martin Luther King solve racism forever and ever, the end?
Do we really need to explain why we need this thing? Probably not, but we will anyway! The Voting Rights Act was used as the basis for rejecting a recent Voter ID law in Texas. Minorities are disproportionately impacted by long lines when they try to exercise their right to vote, like that one 102-year-old lady who had to wait in line for three hours — and then had to come back the next day — before casting a ballot. Also, it is possible for jurisdictions to apply for exemptions to preclearance, and all the jurisdictions who have applied for an exemption have been granted one.
What are the Supremes saying about all this?
As usual, Clarence Thomas is saying nothing, and the last time Section 5 was challenged in the Supreme Court, he cast the sole ballot to strike it down so he will probably vote the same way this time around too. Sotomayor, however, ripped Shelby County, Alabama’s counsel a new asshole. Scalia is saying stupid racist garbage. Kagan seems pretty happy with leaving Section 5 as it is, and Kennedy has compared it to the Marshall Plan.
So basically, what you’re saying is that it will probably be struck down 5-4, as usual?
Yup. That’s what we’re saying.