One sentence from Shelby County v. Holder—the 2013 Supreme Court case examining the constitutionality of sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—exemplifies the intractable divide in American life on matters of race:
“Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically.”
Conservative jurists have used this assertion to support their campaign to erode constitutional protections against civil rights violations for decades. The essence of their argument is that courts should stop restricting political processes that harm minorities because those processes no longer obviously harm minorities. Over the past two years, experience has exposed the fallacy in this line of thinking.
Since the Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act’s coverage formula, politicians have used their newfound freedom to pass sweeping restrictions on voting rights, implement redistricting maps that reduce the influence of minority voters, and change electoral systems to prevent minorities from being elected to local offices.
Two weeks ago, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency announced that it was closing 31 driver’s license offices across the state. The change will hit Alabama’s black belt particularly hard. As a result of the closures, no one who lives in a county that is more than 75 percent black will be able to obtain a driver’s license without crossing county lines. Given that Alabama has a Voter ID law of its own, voting rights advocates are rightly outraged about the impact that the reduced access will have on minority voters across the state.
Alabama officials argue that the closures are motivated by budget concerns. They also point out that voters can satisfy Alabama’s voter identification requirement with free voter IDs that they can obtain at their local county courthouses. Because minority voters still have access to forms of identification that will allow them to vote, state officials are blaming so-called outsiders for raising the specter of Jim Crow over something that has nothing to do with race at all. Whether one believes them or not, before the ruling in Shelby County made Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, federal officials would have reviewed this change for its impact on minorities regardless of the state officials’ purported intent. Now, state officials can proceed without any roadblocks.
As he advocated for the Voting Rights Act, Dr. King noted that state officials are often structurally discouraged from empowering minority voters. In a 1965 article in the New York Times, King posited that “the heart of the voting problem lies in the fact that the machinery for enforcing this basic right is in the hands of state-appointed officials answerable to the very people who believe they can continue to wield power in the South only so long as the Negro is disenfranchised.” As such, he argued that federal enforcement was necessary to ensure that black people would have access to the ballot box.
Perhaps things haven’t changed that much at all. In Alabama, African Americans voted in high numbers in 2008, and as soon as Republicans took control of the state’s legislature in 2010, the state quickly enacted its voter identification law. Taken in context, it’s difficult to avoid concluding that this latest development is another manifestation of the same belief that Dr. King noted 50 years ago: that certain state officials who are not accountable to black voters believe that they must discourage black people from voting in order to continue getting elected.
After Shelby County, there are limited federal restraints on state officials whose actions marginalize minority voters. Perhaps Congress will step in at some point and pass a new VRA that remedies the Court’s concerns. Until then, we will have to rely on truth-tellers—including a few outsiders—to make sure that these injustices don’t go unnoticed.