The Voting Rights Act and the 2016 Presidential Election

By Kyla Eastling (CMC ’18)

As the results from the presidential election continue to trickle in, there are many questions that remain unanswered. Some of these questions relate to the future, such as what the Supreme Court will look like during the next four years. Others relate to the past, and how historical events may have shaped this election. One of these historical events is the 2013 Supreme Court decision of Shelby County v. Holder. This decision struck down sections 5 and 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ultimately led to this year’s presidential election being the first in fifty years to operate without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. With these safeguards removed, several states introduced restrictive voting laws. Though the effects of these laws on the recent presidential election are unclear as of yet, the potential future infringement on many citizens’ right to vote is concerning.

The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, protected the right of male citizens to vote regardless of race. However, in the decades after the amendment was passed, many states enacted discriminatory laws that prevented African Americans from voting, particularly in the South. These laws, among other forms of discrimination, led to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s which ultimately produced to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). Generally, the VRA outlawed racially discriminatory laws that prevented black citizens from voting. Some of the most powerful provisions of the VRA were sections 5 and 4(b), which mandated that nine states with histories of voting discrimination must receive preclearance from the U.S. Attorney General or the U.S. District Court for D.C. before altering their voting laws.

These sections, recently declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, managed to prevent thousands of discriminatory laws in the fifty years following the passing of the VRA. Chief Justice John Roberts argued in the majority opinion that these sections, though sensible (and Constitutional) during the time the VRA was passed, now overstep the federal government’s right to regulate elections—a power that the Constitution explicitly designates to the states. Thus, the Court ruled that unless blatant discrimination against specific voters is present, states can change their voting laws without prior federal approval.

Fourteen states enacted new voting restrictions following the Court’s decision. All of these new restrictions, including controversial voter ID requirements, eliminating many early voting hours and Sunday voting, as well as closing down select polling places, were in effect for this year’s presidential election. Many studies have found that these restrictions “disproportionately affect racial minorities, the elderly, and the poor” — populations of the electorate that generally lean Democrat. One study, authored by the Leadership Conference Education Fund, concluded that 43% of the counties that required preapproval by the VRA before the Shelby County case had closed polling places after the decision, leading to some voters having to travel up to 25 miles to vote.

The actual effects of these new voting restrictions on the presidential election remain unclear. For the most part, states that required preapproval under the VRA have historically voted Republican in presidential elections. Thus, some experts conclude that even if these new laws did constitute discrimination by preventing groups that usually skew Democrat from voting, the laws ultimately may not have affected the results of the 2016 presidential election. Others maintain that it is reasonable to suppose that the laws could have made a significant difference in the way at least some states voted. Many groups argue that it is troubling that voting is such a difficult undertaking in many states, regardless of the concrete effects voter turnout has on elections. Critics additionally point to the fact that in some of these states, it is easier to buy a gun than to vote. Furthermore, though voting restriction laws can still be struck down in the federal appeals courts, as they were in Texas and North Carolina, this puts the burden on citizens to defend their right to vote. This burden should fall on governments – any legitimate democracy needs its citizens to vote, and is therefore responsible for making voting accessible. Thus, the Supreme Court’s decision regarding the VRA and the resulting restrictive state voting laws require attention beyond their potential ramifications on this presidential election.

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