Getting at the Root: Why the Supreme Court Decision on the Voting Rights Act Matters in the Movement to End Violence

Getting at the Root: Why the Supreme Court Decision on the Voting Rights Act Matters in the Movement to End Violence

When the Supreme Court eliminated key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, I found myself reflecting on whether there are lessons from the Civil Rights Movement that we can use in the movement to end violence against women and girls? There are many.

Having worked for a decade developing strategies to educate and empower Latino voters around the country, I find it hard to imagine Chief Justice Robert’s America– one where “[t]hings have changed in the South. Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity.” – Shelby County v. Holder.

On Tuesday, June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court determined in the Holder case that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional, outdated and created an unfair burden on jurisdictions with a deep-rooted history of racism by requiring these jurisdictions to clear any new voter or election laws before implementation. Without this section of the Act, social change movements lose one of the most important mechanisms to uprooting race driven state and local election laws that disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters before these laws are implemented.

Two days after the Supreme Court ruling six states have already moved forward with stringent voter ID laws, akin to a modern day poll tax. If these laws are implemented, they will require many voters in those states to purchase new forms of state identification. In order to do that many individuals will also need to purchase copies of other supporting documents, to prove that they are in fact who they say they are. These new laws will create an unfair burden on poor people, young adults, and residents of rural communities, a large majority of whom are Black and Latino voters and women. Congress and the Civil Rights movement have a unique opportunity to revisit the root causes of voter disenfranchisement articulated in section 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act and determine what the formula should be today.

As social justice activists, we also have an opportunity to understand how the civil rights movement came to apply a root cause analysis to devise new strategies to uproot racism in 1965 and why it is still relevant today.

After the 15th Amendment passed in 1870, which specifically provided the right to vote regardless of race, many African Americans began running and winning state and local elected office. In order to prevent African Americans from gaining power, white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) exercised physical and verbal violence and intimidation against African Americans and other minorities. At the same time KKK sympathizers moved to pass racist laws (i.e., poll tax, literacy tests, and vouchers of “good moral character”) that would prevent Blacks and other minorities from voting.

While the civil rights movement countered these efforts with case by case litigation, Congress passed federal laws that banned these tests. Unfortunately, these efforts failed at systematically reducing the violence and intimidation of Black voters. By 1910, the Black vote was almost completely suppressed in the former confederate states. Frustrated by the lack of traction they were having, the civil rights movement began looking more closely at the systems and structures that were being used to advance racist laws and its symptom voter suppression. The civil rights movement understood it needed to find new ways to prevent voter disenfranchisement before state disenfranchisement laws could cause harm on minority voters.

The Civil Rights Movement’s deeper root cause analysis shifted their strategy toward ending voter disenfranchisement. The first step towards the movement took toward this effort began with the establishment of the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice which ultimately gave the federal government the power to enforce federal statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, disability, religion, familial status and national origin. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 bolstered the ability of the Department of Justice to protect disenfranchised voters, by giving them the authority to stop the implementation of state and local laws that would adversely impact minority voters in jurisdictions with a long history of racism. By doing so, the Voting Rights Act gave the department of Justice the power to weed out the root causes of disenfranchisement—clearly racism and fear of loss of power.

Over time, racism has manifested itself in every aspect of the electoral process. It was section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that prohibited jurisdictions with significant histories of voter disenfranchisement from implementing changes to their election procedures. In essence, Section 5 gave the Department of Justice and federal courts the power to prevent jurisdictions from disenfranchising minority voters by requiring those jurisdictions to seek federal approval for state election law reforms. Section 4 of the Act established a formula for determining which jurisdictions were so blatant in their efforts to discriminate that they were required to clear all new election laws and procedures. That formula empowered the Department of Justice to stop serious perpetrators of racial discrimination from advancing disenfranchisement strategies at the state and local level. It also empowered civil rights organizers, lawyers and advocates to collect research, data and stories of disenfranchisement in order to prevent further suppression of minority voters.

While we have made significant strides because of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, voter disenfranchisement continues today. A recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice indicated that the Department of Justice has stopped 86 electoral changes under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in the last decade, 36 of which were submitted since 2006.  The Voting Rights Act is a powerful tool to uprooting voter disenfranchisement in the electoral process. Through a root cause analysis, the civil rights movement has deployed a whole series of strategies to reform systems and structures that might further perpetrate racism in the electoral process. Today, the civil rights movement has a new opportunity to revisit the root causes of disenfranchisement and accelerate a move towards parity.

As we look to our own work, how do we work together as a movement to create lasting opportunities to end violence against women and girls like the Civil Rights Movement did with the Voting Rights Act? How do we prevent violence against girls and women from happening in the first place?

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