Seven years after Shelby County vs. Holder, voter suppression permeates the South
JoAnne Bland was only 12 when she collapsed in horror on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. State troopers were brutalizing people all around her – including her sister – with tear gas, clubs, whips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire, simply because they sought the right to vote.
Television footage of the “Bloody Sunday” attack sparked national outrage, galvanized public opinion in favor of Black suffrage, and mobilized Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed racial discrimination in voting.
The Voting Rights Act is widely recognized as the most effective civil rights legislation ever passed. Since 1965, it has enabled millions of Black, Latinx, Asian American and Native American citizens who were previously denied suffrage an equal opportunity to cast a ballot.
But seven years ago today, on June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court seriously weakened the landmark law. The Shelby County v. Holder decision meant that states with histories of racial discrimination were no longer required to pre-clear changes in voting rules with the federal government before they went into effect.
Unsurprisingly, that decision has led to the enactment of a host of voter suppression tactics such as purging voter rolls, restricting voting rights of returning citizens, instituting onerous voter ID laws, limiting access to voting by mail, and other measures that disproportionately affect low-income and Black and brown voters.
As deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Voting Rights Practice Group, I lead a team that advocates for equal voting rights across the South.
Our support for grassroots organizations that will empower people to vote this election season and beyond is one weapon we are using to fight voter suppression.
The SPLC – in partnership with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta – recently launched its Vote Your Voice initiative with an investment of up to $30 million from its endowment to support nonpartisan, nonprofit voter outreach organizations in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.
The Vote Your Voice campaign seeks to empower communities of color by aiding them in their fight against voter suppression; back Black- and brown-led voter mobilization organizations often ignored by traditional funders; support and prototype effective voter engagement strategies; and re-enfranchise returning citizens despite intentional bureaucratic challenges.
‘We couldn’t be more polarized’
Years before I joined the SPLC, I was a lawyer representing the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP in Shelby County, Alabama, where the Shelby County v. Holder decision originated.
I was at the hearing during the oral argument. I remember reading the case decision and wondering how the highest court in the land could really believe that we were a post-racial society where voters of color no longer needed protection.
And here we are today: We couldn’t be more polarized.
Look no further than the recent election in Georgia, where we saw poll closures, malfunctioning machines, missing ballots that forced voters to wait in line for hours – or forfeit their constitutional rights – and where even the Atlanta mayor had to vote in person because her absentee ballot never arrived.
As our recent report found in Alabama, there are many ways in which elected officials are still suppressing the vote in the 21st century, particularly after the Shelby decision allowed them to do so.
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