How America Is Backtracking on Voting Rights
The Voting Rights Act was signed into law 50 years ago last week, but the anniversary of this heralded civil rights legislation brought more uncertainty than celebration. Since 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a critical section of the Voting Rights Act with its ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, 21 states have passed legislation that advocates say is designed to keep people—particularly people of color—from casting their ballots. Ending same-day registration and reducing early voting periods, for example, disproportionately affects people of color. The new laws have sparked lawsuits in places like Texas and North Carolina challenging voting restrictions and calling on the courts to force the states to scale back these constraints and let people vote.
To get a better sense of the present-day fight for voting rights and what looms ahead, TakePart spoke to author Ari Berman, whose book Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America was published this month. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
TakePart: Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that Texas’ voter I.D. law, enacted in 2011 allegedly to prevent voter fraud, violates the Voting Rights Act. How important was this ruling in the broader scheme of voting rights?
Ari Berman: The decision was significant because it was unanimous and because it was written by a conservative judge. Texas has the strictest voter I.D. law in the country. The tragedy of this case is that this law was originally struck down in 2012, and then it was allowed to go into effect after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. So three years later, we’re refighting a battle that was already decided.
TakePart: Do you think other courts will heed this decision?
Berman: I think there’s a very unsettled state of play right now, because one of these major cases—whether it’s Texas or North Carolina—is likely going to the Supreme Court. Everyone’s just kind of waiting to see what that case will be. The Texas case could very likely be that case.
TakePart: Would you rather see the Supreme Court take on the North Carolina case or the Texas case?
Berman: The Texas case is more cut-and-dried. Even this Supreme Court, which is very hostile to voting rights, I think would have to recognize the long record of the lower courts on the Texas case. The North Carolina decision is more complicated because you’re talking about getting rid of a whole series of electoral reforms that expanded voter participation. If the Court weighs in, there needs to be a clearer standard for how to interpret the Voting Rights Act. Personally, I think that any change that leaves minority voters worse off should violate the Voting Rights Act.
TakePart: Do you think that the recent ruling by the Supreme Court on the Fair Housing Act could bode well for the North Carolina case?
Berman: It could potentially play a positive role in multiple voting rights cases. In 2013, the Supreme Court didn’t seem very aware of or sensitive to the ongoing prevalence of voting discrimination. But in the Fair Housing Act case, you had Justice Kennedy citing Baltimore and Ferguson. It led me to believe that if the voting rights case had come up in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, it may have been decided very differently. There’s a much greater awareness of the problem of racism in our country now, and that it takes many forms—and one form racism continues to take is voting discrimination.
TakePart: What role do you think the Black Lives Matter movement will continue to play on voting rights issues in the coming months?
Berman: I think it’s raising the issue of racial justice, and voting rights is a part of that. It’s logical that if you want to fight for civil rights in this country, fighting for the Voting Rights Act is a big part of that. The act did more than any piece of legislation to further the cause of racial equality, so it’s tremendously important over the last five decades, and it’s tremendously important today. The Black Lives Matter movement is influencing the broader conversation and making people more aware that these issues weren’t decided 50 years ago—we still have a long way to go as a country.
TakePart: How do you think the Black Lives Matter movement will continue to influence the 2016 presidential race?
Berman: It’s forcing candidates to address racial justice issues. I would urge people to pay attention to what Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Hillary Clinton are doing. They’re not perfect, but they’ve issued a lot of very strong policies and ideas in the voting rights arena. That’s in stark contrast to the GOP candidates, who have done absolutely nothing on voting rights, and none of whom support, to my knowledge, restoring the Voting Rights Act. Indeed, on its 50th anniversary, which was also the first Republican debate, this issue never even came up.
TakePart: Do you see the tide changing at all in terms of voter turnout in the coming years?
Berman: We know that things like early voting and same-day registration lead to higher voter turnout. So it’s sad that all these states aren’t adopting these measures, and in fact many are cutting back. I’m anticipating that there’s going to be a reduction in voter turnout in the states that are implementing new voting restrictions, or at least not the increase we’d like to see. I don’t see on a national level any sort of initiative to make it easier to vote, which you’d think we would do, because we just had a midterm election with the lowest voter turnout in 60 or 70 years.
TakePart: What role will demographic shifts occurring across the country, especially in states like North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas, play in voting rights in the coming decades?
Berman: These voting restrictions have been driven by a fear of changing demographics. I think that as the country changes demographically, we’re going to see more attempts to restrict the voting rights of these emerging new communities. That’s why the fight over voting rights isn’t going to end any time soon.
TakePart: What’s next in the voting rights fight?
Berman: This is going to be the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, so I’m anticipating that when a bunch of these state legislatures come back in the fall of 2015 or spring of 2016, new restrictions could emerge closer to the election. The second thing is the Supreme Court’s taking a big case that’s going to define how districts should be drawn. If they’re drawn only based on registered voters rather than total people living in a district, districts themselves are going to become older, whiter, and more conservative as opposed to younger and more diverse. That’s something that could have huge ramifications on representation in the country.