Former United States President Lyndon B. Johnson signed one of the most ground breaking pieces of legislation into law on Aug. 6, 1965: The Voting Rights Act of 1965. It outlawed racial discrimination at the polls, which had effectively prevented African Americans from voting in a number of southern states. The law had a significant impact—after just three years, more than half of African Americans under its jurisdiction were registered to vote. American democracy seemed to be starting to reach its full potential. The Supreme Court, however, surprisingly struck down a key VRA provision in 2013, which prevented states with a history of racial discrimination to enact voting laws without federal approval. Chief Justice John Roberts—writing for the majority opinion—defended the decision and stated, “The conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.” He argues that because the VRA has been so successful, it no longer requires the strict enforcement it once received. This argument, however, seems self-defeating in nature.
The fact that a law has worked well for several decades should be evidence as to why it should remain intact. The VRA is a vital tool used to stamp out racial discrimination at the ballot box––this decision dangerously weakens that tool. In the wake of the court’s decision, state after state has passed new voting laws that make it increasingly difficult for people to vote.
A recent example comes from North Carolina, where in 2013 the state passed a new voter identification law that requires all voters to present some form of ID. The law also shortened early voting, ended same-day registration and eliminated a program that allowed high school students to register to vote before their 18th birthday. Republican lawmakers justified the law as a common-sense measure to prevent voter fraud in the state.
According to The New York Times, the U.S. Department of Justice found that Republican lawmakers in the state were intentionally trying to restrict African Americans’ ability to vote by using data on voting methods by race. While this legislation is most likely motivated by politics rather than racism, it is no less abhorrent and no less of a blatant offense to democracy.
It is time to stop playing politics with people’s ability to vote. Free and easy access to voting is essential to our democracy—it ensures that everyone’s voice can be heard. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to weaken the VRA, this essential freedom faces even more threats than before. It is critical that we see these new voting laws for what they really are—intentional discrimination—and pressure our politicians to end these cynical attempts to disenfranchise millions of people.u