Supreme Court Castrates the Voting Rights Act
Karen Ocamb

What the hell? The U.S. Supreme Court just scuttled the key provision in the critical Voting Rights Act that prevents racial discrimination from ruining democracy. And take a look at the Williams Institute’s demographic map showing where same-sex African-American couples live—in the very states the high court is now allowing to change their voting laws without federal oversight. 

In essence, this ruling is the racial equivalent of the Citizens United ruling that says corporations are people and contributing boatloads of undisclosed contributions to a candidate for political office or an initiative campaign is just fine, since money is free speech. Remember when President Obama called out the Supreme Court during his 2010 State of the Union speech? 


"With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that, I believe, will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections," said Obama, the Washington Post reported. "I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems."

That master of immature condescension, Justice Samuel Alito, shook his head and mouthed, "Not true, not true." Obama turned out to be right.

And so it will be with this totally absurd castration of the Voting Rights Act, wherein the majority of justices are either so out of touch they have no clue how the real world works and that this Republican-controlled House can’t even get a Farm Bill passed (thankfully, according to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes) or they know exactly what they are doing and that nothing will get done to “fix” the problem and therefore states can return to the good ole days when “states' rights” meant anything the ultra-conservative Christian white majority wanted it to mean.  

So what we can now look forward to are more efforts at racially motivated redistricting, voter suppression and Voter ID laws targeting minorities—specifically the poor and African-American and Latino voters. And, as the Williams Institute map shows, that means LGBT voters too, some of whom—such as trans individuals without “proper” identification and closeted gays too afraid to make a scene—will be disenfranchised. (Click here to see a map of where the Voting Right Act has made an impact.)

The NAACP is holding a major march and rally on Aug. 28, 2013, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famous March on Washington with Rev. Martin Luther King. Surely, LGBT groups will sign on and participate.

Here’s a quick analysis of the decision from Amy Howe at the respected SCOTUSblog

Today’s holding in Shelby County v. Holder, in Plain English: Today the Court issued its decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the challenge to the constitutionality of the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. That portion of the Act was designed to prevent discrimination in voting by requiring all state and local governments with a history of voting discrimination to get approval from the federal government before making any changes to their voting laws or procedures, no matter how small. In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts that was joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito, the Court did not invalidate the principle that preclearance can be required. But much more importantly, it held that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which sets out the formula that is used to determine which state and local governments must comply with Section 5’s preapproval requirement, is unconstitutional and can no longer be used. Thus, although Section 5 survives, it will have no actual effect unless and until Congress can enact a new statute to determine who should be covered by it. (Emphasis mine) 

In 2006, after hearings and hours of testimony on how the federal oversight was still needed, especially in the South, the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized for 25 years by a vote of 98 to 0 in the Senate and 390 to 33 in the House with conservative Republican President George W. Bush signing it into law. The majority of the justices now say times have changed (ironically, thanks to the Voting Rights Act!) and the oversight is no longer needed. Somehow they neglected to take into consideration the fact that the pre-clearance provision of the act prevented discriminatory voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina from taking effect!

"The Supreme Court has effectively gutted one of the nation's most important and effective civil rights laws. Minority voters in places with a record of discrimination are now at greater risk of being disenfranchised than they have been in decades. Today's decision is a blow to democracy. Jurisdictions will be able to enact policies which prevent minorities from voting, and the only recourse these citizens will have will be expensive and time-consuming litigation," Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told the Associated Press. The group represented a black resident of the Alabama County that challenged the law.

"This is like letting you keep your car, but taking away the keys," said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Here’s reaction from the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force: 

Today’s Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a central part of the Voting Rights Act—in its ruling on Shelby County v. Holder—as a major step backwards in the ongoing effort to eliminate racism from our democracy. The ruling invalidated crucial protections passed by Congress in 1965—protections subsequently renewed four times in the decades since.

Rea Carey, Task Force executive director, states:

Discrimination at the ballot box is a real problem and causes real harm to our democracy. This ruling is a major step backwards in the ongoing fight for a truly free and fair democracy and democratic system. We are committed to working with Congress and continuing our work on the ground in the states to make sure America’s democracy is free, fair and accessible for all.

The controversial ruling will significantly reduce the federal government’s role in overseeing voting laws in areas with a history of discrimination on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority group. The Task Force has joined with other LGBT and civil rights organizations to express its deep concern with today’s ruling.

Here’s reaction from a slew of LGBT groups:

Today, the Supreme Court struck down a central part of the Voting Rights Act, invalidating crucial protections passed by Congress in 1965 and renewed four times in the decades since. The sharply divided decision will significantly reduce the federal government’s role in overseeing voting laws in areas with a history of discrimination against African-Americans.  

We, America’s leading LGBT advocacy organizations, join civil rights organizations – and indeed, all Americans whom this law has served to protect – in expressing acute dismay at today’s ruling. Not only had Congress repeatedly reaffirmed the need for this bedrock civil rights protection, but authoritative voices from across America had filed amicus briefs urging the court not to undermine the law: the NAACP; the American Bar Association; the Navajo Nation; the states of New York, California, Mississippi and North Carolina; numerous former Justice Department officials charged with protecting voting rights; dozens of U.S. senators and representatives; and many others.  

These varied and powerful voices attest to the self-evident reality that racial protections are still needed in voting in this country. As recently as last year’s elections, political partisans resorted to voter suppression laws and tactics aimed at reducing the votes of people of color.  

Voting rights protections, which have long served our nation’s commitment to equality and justice, should not be cast aside now. The court has done America a grave disservice, and we will work with our coalition partners to undo the damage inflicted by this retrogressive ruling.  

Center for Black Equity 
CenterLink: The Community of LGBT Centers 
The Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals 
Equality Federation 
Family Equality Council 
Freedom to Marry 
Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders 
Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) 
Human Rights Campaign 
Immigration Equality Action Fund 
Lambda Legal 
National Black Justice Coalition 
National Center for Lesbian Rights 
National Center for Transgender Equality 
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force 
The National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance 
Out & Equal Workplace Advocates 
PFLAG - Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays 
Pride at Work, AFL-CIO 

Statement by the President on the Supreme Court Ruling on Shelby County v. Holder
I am deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision today.  For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act – enacted and repeatedly renewed by wide bipartisan majorities in Congress – has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans.  Today’s decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.
As a nation, we’ve made a great deal of progress towards guaranteeing every American the right to vote.  But, as the Supreme Court recognized, voting discrimination still exists.    And while today’s decision is a setback, it doesn’t represent the end of our efforts to end voting discrimination.  I am calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls.  My Administration will continue to do everything in its power to ensure a fair and equal voting process.


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