The Fight To Protect Voting Rights Must Continue
There is a generational impact on our families when it comes to voting. Research shows that our voting behavior can absolutely be a habit and that these habits form early, sometimes connected to the civic engagement we grow up witnessing as youth, long before we’ve become voters ourselves. In other words, there is some evidence to suggest that Sally, age 12, is likely to become a lifelong voter because she has grown up in a household that votes.
What then is the generational impact of voter suppression? If such tactics make it harder to cast a ballot, demoralize an electorate and ultimately stop people from successfully voting, what do we imagine decades of this disenfranchisement and political silencing of whole communities do to the households who bear eyewitness to it?
In 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, it created federal oversight to address racial discrimination that had been running unchecked in elections and voting practices. Almost immediately opponents of the law began looking for areas to target attacks on the VRA. South Carolina went after the law as a violation of the state’s right to implement and control elections. But in South Carolina v. Katzenbach the Supreme Court declared that through the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress had “full remedial powers” to prevent racial discrimination in voting. They ruled that the VRA was a “legitimate response” to the “insidious and pervasive evil” which had denied Black people the right to vote since the Fifteenth Amendment’s adoption in 1870.
The Voting Rights Act paved the way for Black voters to seize the ballot and mobilize communities in a way that hadn’t been available to them before.
In Mississippi for example, just two years after the VRA was signed into law Black voter registration rates jumped from 6.7 percent to nearly 60 percent. Through bipartisan support, Congress extended the VRA in 1970, then again in 1975 (extending protection to non-English speakers), and in 1982 it expanded the VRA’s coverage to consider voting laws that had disparate, discriminatory effects regardless of intent.
Efforts to weaken the law have never ceased however and beginning in 2013 with Shelby County v. Holder and the gutting of Section 5 which dealt with pre-clearance, restrictive voting laws in states with a history of discrimination began to crop up. Texas wasted no time enacting what was then the most restrictive voter ID law in the nation. Most recently with the 2021 Brnovich v. DNC decision affecting Section 2 of the VRA, the Supreme Court has made it even harder to challenge discriminatory voting laws in court.
Consider that many of the modern day restrictive laws on voting we’re seeing in action, which include new misguided criminalization of voting, have presented themselves as racially neutral (not unlike voter suppression efforts of the past) while the fallout from these laws would definitely suggest otherwise. Indeed, studies continue to show that the disparate impact of voter suppression is felt most by communities of color as well as young voters, elderly voters and voters who experience a disability.
For Texans this gets further crystalized when we look at the recent sheer chaos surrounding SB 1 changes for our state’s primary earlier this month.
An Associated Press analysis looked at 187 Texas counties and found nearly 23,000 mail ballots were rejected in the 2022 primary under the new ID requirements of SB 1. This amounts to roughly 13% of mail ballots cast, an alarming rejection rate and far beyond what election officials consider typical. A New York Times analysis shows where SB 1’s disastrous changes had a clear and disproportionate impact on Black communities.
What this lays bare for us is that laws like SB 1 are showing themselves to be discriminatory in practice just as many voting rights groups and advocates feared.
The Texas primary was the first in the nation this year and the complete shut out of whole groups of the electorate could spell serious trouble for other voters across the nation who live in states where lawmakers have rooted similar barriers.
Fresh off of 2021 when our State Legislature also passed unlawful district maps that continue a decades old vicious pattern of silencing communities of color, and with new challenges going before the Supreme Court, it remains clear that Congress must continue working to bring a restored Voting Rights Act that protects voters and puts power back in the hands of the people. Texans have not walked away from this fight to protect our vote and our nation’s leaders shouldn’t either.
This is how we bolster strong civic engagement and how we begin to address the generational impact of voter suppression on vulnerable communities. It’s how we begin to reach for the promise of a more inclusive democracy that serves us all.