Voting rights: A promise unfulfilled

By Conor Ahern, Task Force Ford Foundation Fellow

Forty-eight years ago this week, as Americans across the nation prepared to celebrate our freedom and independence on the fourth, the Voting Rights Act was poised to mend the gap between our democracy’s practice and its promise. Passage by the House of Representatives on July 9th, 1965 ensured that only a few minor amendments stood between a comprehensive protection of the right to vote for all United States citizens and President Johnson’s signature, which he delivered a month later. Last week, however, the Supreme Court rendered the Voting Rights Act toothless; until (and unless) our gridlocked Congress comes up with a more modern formula for identifying problem jurisdictions, the Voting Rights Act will no longer stand as a bulwark against the threat of voter oppression, suppression and intimidation.

Although it remains to be seen whether Pandora’s Box is opened, we cannot deny that it has been unlocked. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires jurisdictions with histories of voting discrimination to seek “preclearance” to prove to the Department of Justice that their proposed voting changes were not designed to (and will not result in) harm to a particular racial minority. Although the Court left Section 5 untouched in Shelby County v. Holder, the Voting Rights Act was effectively gutted, because Section 5 only applies to jurisdictions singled out by Section 4. The formula that Congress ratified for the fourth time in 2006 (which Congress intended to last until at least 2031) has been struck down as unconstitutional, and the voting rights of the millions of citizens of color living in those jurisdictions are thereby imperiled.

Within hours of Shelby’s release, five states formerly covered by Section 4 were rushing to implement restrictive voter-ID laws, which prejudice young and minority voters.  Even discriminatory laws – such as the voter-ID laws declared discriminatory by a federal court in 2012, which Texas’ Attorney General is rushing to implement in the wake of the decision – can now be implemented unless a litigant successfully challenges them.

It’s doubtful that many people concluded last week with that somber thought in mind—even if their progressive credentials were in order. And this we likely owe to the collective sigh of relief that all conscientious Americans breathed when Hollingsworth and Windsor were handed down on the last day of the Supreme Court’s term, reestablishing marriages for same-sex couples in California, and striking down Section 3 of DOMA, respectively.  While our relief was overdue, and while we have more than earned the privilege of savoring these victories, we know that this is just the beginning of the LGBT struggle, and we would be self-interested and short-sighted beyond warrant to forget those who struggled long before us, and who struggle alongside us now.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was instrumental in the push to get the Voting Rights Act passed, and a major push in that effort was 1963’s March on Washington, which will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary next month. Dr. King’s oft-repeated words from the “I Have a Dream” speech elegantly and more powerfully distill the importance of coalition-building and unity against oppression than I have accomplished here. So instead of retreading the well-remembered wisdom that comprises his greatest legacy, I would like to highlight a less conspicuous remark from Dr. King’s speech that day:

Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

The Task Force is committed to the rights of all citizens to vote, and has committed to reinstating and strengthening the voting rights that all citizens should enjoy. That bright day of justice still eludes us, and the LGBT community’s elation will not sate or distract us but reinvigorate our fight to achieve it. Just as strongly as we feel that 2013 is a beginning for the LGBT rights movement, the Task Force affirms that 2013 is not – and cannot be – an end for the voting or civil rights movements.