By S. E. Williams, Staff Writer
The Texas law was enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose, has a racially discriminatory effect, is a poll tax and unconstitutionally burdens the right to vote.
Last week America marked the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a hard fought victory for equal access to the ballot paid for with the blood, sweat, prayers and tears of generations of disenfranchised citizens—a legacy for their progeny.
In 2013, a conservative leaning and sharply divided Supreme Court struck down the preclearance requirement (Section 5), a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). The Supreme Court’s decision freed southern states from federal oversight of changes to their election laws and it removed what many civil rights groups believed was the most significant tool in the fight against discrimination in America. Despite being weakened, the VRA still afforded the best hope; the best guarantee of equal access to the ballot—that hope is undeterred.
In response, many touted the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States as proof the VRA had outlived its usefulness, has served its purpose so to speak. Good meaning citizens mistakenly took the overwhelming voter participation by African Americans in 2008 and again in 2010 as proof. African Americans had made too much progress in the area of voting rights? What an interesting paradox.
The election of President Barack Obama was an ultimate tribute to the nation’s progress in voting rights—yet it also appeared to sound a frightful alarm to those on the right that not only are times changing, so are demographics. Many on the right saw the election as too successful, as an ominous warning that unless something is done to stem the tide, minorities might usurp too much power, too much authority.
Even as the Supreme Court considered the issue, conservative politicians worked diligently to enhance gerrymandering techniques and conservative legislators passed dozens and dozens of new voter suppression laws all in the guise of preventing voter fraud but in reality, manifested as voter suppression.
Under the old provisions of the Voting Rights Act at least nine states including the city councils and local governments within their jurisdiction were required to get advanced approval from the federal Justice Department before they changed their voting and/or election rules. The process was identified as pre-clearance in Section 5 of the VRA.
Pre-clearance was used by the Justice Department hundreds of times since 1965 to prevent cities, counties and states from adopting allegedly discriminatory voting rules. With its 2013 ruling the Supreme Court did leave room for congress to fix the gaping hole it left in the law; but, partisan vitriol toward the president coupled with unprecedented partisan gridlock in congress has made it impossible to take legislative action on this issue.
Although liberal and some conservative lawmakers have talked a good line and expressed support for redesigning Section 5 to date, nothing has changed.
The 2013 Supreme Court decision served to escalate a growing trend in the implementation of new voting limitations around the nation, a trend that has extended far beyond the nine southern states highlighted in the 1965 law. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law as of May, 2015, at least 113 bills that would restrict access to registration and voting have been introduced or carried over in 33 states.
A modern day civil rights movement is rising in response to this activity. Last Wednesday, civil rights advocates were encouraged to learn a federal appeals panel ruled against a strict voter identification law in Texas and claimed it discriminated against both blacks and Hispanics. The ruling also made it clear the law violated the 1965 VRA.
According to reports the law impacted at least 600,000 Texans who are currently registered to vote but will be unable to do so merely because they cannot meet photo-identification requirements
The ruling in the Texas case served to shine a bright light on the ongoing struggle for voting rights. In 2011, the state passed a bill, SB14 which required individuals to present one of several forms of photo identification. In response, a group of activists filed suit and challenged the constitutionality and legality of the law.
The Appeals Court ruling on SB14 was also somewhat disappointing to members of the civil rights community as the suit was not successful in its allegation of discriminatory purpose as opposed to discriminatory impact. Advocates had hoped addressing the issue of discriminatory purpose In the suit it would strengthen the Justice Department’s attempt to resuscitate this key provision of Section 5.
However, a number of experts believe this ruling will go a long way toward defining the limits of the law—an effort that may eventually require another turn before the US Supreme Court as the VRA though weakened, still has teeth as it still bans any law that may suppress minority voting. The problem, in light of the 2013 ruling, is that no one is quite clear on what kinds of restrictions are now considered to be crossing the line of legality according to the Act.
Last week the district court held the Texas law had crossed the line. It was enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose, has a racially discriminatory effect, is a poll tax and unconstitutionally burdens the right to vote. Although the Texas governor has yet to file an appeal, the final disposition of the case is undetermined.