Seven years ago today, in their decision on Shelby County, the Supreme Court undercut Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and undermined a cornerstone of American civil rights law.
Before 2013, Section 5 had helped prevent discriminatory voting laws from taking effect by imposing preclearance protections that required a federal review of changes to voting procedures in covered regions. Basically, areas with a history of discrimination had to get approval from the Department of Justice for any proposed changes in voting laws. That section of the Voting Rights Act had helped prevent some of the worst attempts to discriminate against minority voters for decades. But in a five-to-four opinion, the conservative members of the Court wrote that the situation had “changed dramatically” since the Voting Rights Act went into effect and that, because of gains made particularly by Black Americans, these protections were no longer necessary.
Essentially, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court said: we fixed it. Racism is solved. Disenfranchisement is over. Mission accomplished.
They were wrong. Efforts to keep Black and poor Americans away from the ballot box are as old as America itself, and while we’ve won important victories, that challenge has never dissipated or dissolved. Some politicians have continued a decades-old effort to create barriers to voting, particularly for communities of color. And for years, map manipulation and gerrymandering have allowed some politicians to pick their voters so a party with minority views and minority support can illegitimately govern with majority power. Voting restrictions, ID laws and voter roll purges have unfairly, and in some cases illegally, stripped Americans of their rights. Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United have given secretive organizations the ability to spend unlimited funds to protect their position, and to drown out the voices of voters in a flood of special interest cash. In this view, the people aren’t the source of American power; they are an inconvenience. An obstacle. A threat.
The ruling in Shelby County did not create voter suppression — but it did open the door to the forces that have attempted to suppress voters for generations, and gave permission for anti-voting interests to be bolder in their obstruction and open in their intention to restrict the franchise to a select few.
That’s why the moment that ruling came down, unnecessary and discriminatory voting restrictions went up across the country in places with conservative-controlled state legislatures like North Carolina and Texas. It’s why we’ve seen a rash of voter ID laws, voting roll purges and poll closures targeting minority and poor communities in places like Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio. It’s why residents of majority-Black precincts in Georgia who showed up to vote for Stacey Abrams in 2018 found that their voting machines were missing important parts — or just missing. It’s why anyone watching the news on Tuesday night in Kentucky — home of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell himself — saw Black men and women banging on the doors of a locked-up polling place at 6pm in Jefferson County, demanding their constitutional right to vote.
It’s clear that too many men and women across the country are still shut out today, just as we were shut out 60 years ago before the Voting Rights Act; just as we were shut out 160 years ago before the Emancipation Proclamation; just as we have been shut out, shut up and shut down at every opportunity by individuals and systems built by those who are more interested in power than progress.
That’s the bad news. But here’s the good news: we are fighting back.
At the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, we’re filing lawsuits against racial gerrymandering in the federal courts and filing partisan gerrymandering cases in the state courts to push back against blatant efforts to disenfranchise Americans. We’re supporting reform efforts on the ballot and in state legislatures to create independent, citizen-led redistricting commissions like the ones in Arizona and California. We’re endorsing and investing in candidates committed to fairness, building support for our cause from the ground up.
These efforts are working. We’ve won in places like North Carolina, where the courts mandated new, fairer districts. Voters in states like Colorado, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and Utah have passed popular reforms to create citizen-led commissions or to make the redistricting process less partisan. We’ve seen reform-minded candidates elected to state legislatures, judicial seats, and governors’ offices across the country. And let me be clear: this isn’t about Democrats and Republicans. This is about a fundamental promise made to all Americans that we have an opportunity to fight for today.
I also want to recognize the good, important work that our partners at Let America Vote and End Citizens United are doing to fight back. They’ve worked tirelessly to elevate the issue of money and politics to voters. They’re leading the charge for Congress to pass HR 1, which includes a laundry list of much-needed fixes to our democratic process.
There’s a reason these forces have worked so hard to keep us quiet, and it’s this: there are more of us. There are more of us who are dedicated to democracy and opportunity and justice; who are committed to the protection of the franchise; and who believe that voters should pick our representatives, and not the other way around. There are more of us. And we are fighting for the right cause: democracy. That’s why all of you who are taking part in this conversation today — along with millions of friends and allies across the country — are so important.
I’ve spent enough time around politics to understand that the loudest people often get the most attention. The truth is that we don’t make much noise when we speak alone — but when we speak together, then we become so loud that nobody can tune us out and nobody can turn us away. If we can raise our voices and our votes, if we can stand up and demand to be counted, then we will be heard.
They can’t shut us up — because we will not be silent. They can’t shut us down, because we will not give in. And they can’t shut us out, because we are banging on the doors of democracy, and we’re not going anywhere until we redeem the promise that America makes to every eligible citizen: a free and fair right to vote.
November is quickly approaching, and this fall will see the most consequential election of our lifetimes. We need all hands on deck, and we need everyone to step up as leaders in their communities. We are counting on you to keep up the fight.