© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The Voting Rights Act: Hard-Won Gains, An Uncertain Future

People wait in line outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Feb. 27, 2013, to listen to oral arguments in the Shelby County, Ala., v. Holder voting rights case. In June, the court struck down a key provision of the law that established a formula to identify states that may require extra scrutiny by the Justice Department regarding voting procedures.
Evan Vucci

Access to the polls has not always been assured for all Americans, and before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many were subjected to so-called literacy tests and poll tax.

The law was created to tackle such injustices, but in June, the Supreme Court struck a key provision of the legislation. Section 4 established a formula determining which states and localities had to get federal approval (known as pre-clearance) before changing their voting procedures.

The provision applied to nine states, mainly in the South, with a history of voter discrimination. The court deemed it unconstitutional for relying on old data.

It is now up to Congress to figure out where the Voting Rights Act goes from here. Both the House and Senate held hearings this past week.

The Challenge For Congress

One of the first questions in these hearings was the threshold question, says NPR congressional correspondent Ailsa Chang. In other words: Do we even need Section 4, or can we rely on some other provision of the law? One of those other provisions might be Section 2.

"[It] allows people to bring lawsuits after voting changes have been made," Chang tells weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden. "But critics of that provision say litigation isn't a substitute [for Section 4]."

If, instead, Congress decides to write an updated formula for Section 4, it has quite a challenge ahead.

"Congress has to figure out what newer data would point to places where there is so much voter discrimination, those places need continual scrutiny," Chang says.

Chang says this will likely be a very slow process, since Congress acts slowly in general and because this legislation could potentially affect elections. Right now, Senate Democrats feel pretty strongly about restoring Section 4. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says he wants to wants to ensure voting rights are protected, but what form that desire takes is unclear.

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin isn't optimistic: "I understand the challenge from the Supreme Court, but in this political climate on Capitol Hill, what was once a very popular bipartisan issue is now, I'm afraid, divided on party lines."

Out Of The 'Penalty Box'

Some of the states that no longer need to get approval to changing voting rules have moved swiftly to enact new voting laws after the Supreme Court ruling. Texas, Mississippi, North Carolina and Alabama have either passed or are working on similar voter ID laws.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange says his state "has made light years of progress based on a law that was necessary in the 1960s."

Strange calls the Supreme Court ruling a victory for states, like Alabama, that have been in a sort of "penalty box" when it comes setting voting laws.

"Alabama had a well-deserved reputation for denying people the vote in the 1960s and prior to that; the Voting Rights Act addressed that, and Alabama made strides," Strange says. "I'm glad now that we're out of that extra step so that we can be treated like the other states and go about setting elections procedures as we need to."

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, voter fraud is almost nonexistent, casting some doubt on the need for strict voter identification legislation. Since it can be difficult for some to get an ID, some critics say states that are enacting these laws are swapping a smaller problem (voter fraud) for a bigger one (access for voters). Strange says access to voting won't be an issue in Alabama.

"We've made it very clear ... we're going to do everything we can to make easy to vote and exercise your most precious right," he says, "even to the extent of providing free voter IDs [and] delivering them to people's houses. There's really no reason why someone who wants an ID can't get one."

An Emotional Fight

There is perhaps no one better in Congress to speak about the Voting Rights Act than Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

Lewis was instrumental in the law's creation. As a civil rights leader in the Jim Crow South, Lewis led sit-ins, participated in the Freedom Rides and helped head the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965.

Rep. John Lewis of Georgia testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Voting Rights Act on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP
Rep. John Lewis of Georgia testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Voting Rights Act on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday.

"As we marched for the right to vote, more than 500 men, women and children were chased beaten, bloody and trampled by state troopers, some riding horseback," Lewis said before the committee.

Those attacks left Lewis with a cracked skull, but his will was strong. That day would come to be known as Bloody Sunday, and it spurred Washington to take action. Just a few months later, Lewis saw his goal become law when on Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

"[He] gave me one of the pens he used to sign it," Lewis said Wednesday.

For Lewis, this isn't history in a book, but his life's work. He has been trying to take his emotions out of it, he says, but it's almost impossible.

"When the Supreme Court made the decision, I almost cried. I almost shed some tears," he says. "I kept saying to myself, 'I wish somehow the members of the Supreme Court — especially the five that voted to put a dagger in the heart and soul of the Voting Rights Act — could walk in our shoes.'"

'Race Is Involved In Everything'

Congress last re-authorized the Voting Rights Act just seven years ago. It noted that minority-voter turnout and representation had improved precisely because of the law's success. In 2009, Mississippi and Alabama led the nation in the percentage of African-American state legislators.

Congress also noted, however, that the Voting Rights Act was still needed, and it had been used hundreds of times since 1982 to protect against discrimination.

But in his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts suggested it is a new era. "Our country has changed," he wrote for the majority.

But Rep. Lewis says race is still very much at the forefront.

"I think there has been a deliberate and systematic effort on the part of certain forces in our country to take the whole idea of race out of public policy," he says. "Race is involved in everything that makes up America, and we cannot escape it. We have to deal with it face on."

While Lewis agrees that progress has been made, he says things like voter ID laws are just new ways to suppress voters. He also says they do not protect against fraud.

"There's been very few cases of [voter] fraud in any parts of our country," he says. "It is better to open up the political process. We have other means and methods to guard against fraud. It's just another device to make it harder. That's not right. That's not fair."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.