The heart of the Voting Rights Act ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court

The problem is that the racism the Voting Rights Act attempts to counteract never really went away.

This August it will be exactly fifty years since Martin Luther King Jr stood and told over quarter of a million people: “I have a dream.” It was one of the defining moments of the civil rights movement, and it led to the Voting Rights Act just two years later which outlawed discriminatory voting practices in the historically racist south.

The Supreme Court in America just celebrated this anniversary by striking down one of the central provisions of that Act, at a time when American civil liberties are already being infringed-upon by an invasive surveillance state – and at a time, moreover, when the case of the shooting of a young black teenager, Trayvon Martin, has brought racial tensions in the South to the fore again too. It's not been a good year for the "land of the free".

In a devastating ruling, the Supreme Court of the United States yesterday voted as section four of the Act, which gives federal oversight to the voting procedures of certain southern states, unconstitutional. Changes in these procedures will now have to be challenged after the fact in court – an expensive and difficult process.

“During [the last 40 years], largely because of the Voting Rights Act, voting tests were abolished, disparities in voter registration and turnout due to race were erased, and African-Americans attained political office in record numbers,” said Chief Justice Roberts in his opinion to the court. “And yet the coverage formula that Congress reauthorised in 2006 ignores these developments, keeping the focus on decades-old data relevant to decades-old problems, rather than current data reflecting current needs.”

Racism in the US, needless to say, is not as quick to die as Roberts seems to think. Martin Luther King's speech was itself given on an other auspicious anniversary, that of the Emancipation Proclamation outlawing slavery in the US. That historic document, signed 150 years ago, ended slavery, but began a century-long epoch of discrimination. King fought against it, and the Voting Rights Act was a significant victory, but the racism the Act attempts to counteract never really went away.

Roberts seems to genuinely believe that the fight against institutional racism has been won. Even if that were true, which it is not, the Act's real strength was its protection not just against overtly racist practices but against economic- and literacy-based voting tests that de facto discriminate against minorities or lower economic groups. These protections are still badly needed. Voter ID laws, which discriminate against minority groups less likely to have ID, have already been imposed by 30 states. Congressional districts are already gerrymandered to breaking-point to give disproportionate representation to wealthy, white Republicans and last year's election campaign was marred by dirty tactics like restricting early voting hours in counties with large black communities. If anything, the Voting Rights Act needed to be expanded, not gutted.

The Court's decision now puts the onus on Congress to justify federal oversight under the Act, which effectively rules it out – Congress is gridlocked and dominated by Republicans with an eye on the 2016 election, for whom this ruling is a godsend.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a former civil rights lawyer, wrote a damning dissenting opinion. “The sad irony of today’s decision lies in [the Court's] utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective,” she wrote. “The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclearance is no longer needed.”

“With that belief,” she concluded, “…history repeats itself.”

The decision has had immediate practical consequences. Changes in voting procedures that had required advance federal approval, including voter identification laws and restrictions on early voting, will now be subject only to after-the-fact litigation. Texas, one of the states now free to impose whatever voting restrictions it may choose, did not seem to even pause for breath. “With today’s decision the state’s voter ID law will take effect immediately,” Texas’ Republican attorney general Greg Abbott said today with relish, making the land of the free a little less free with every word.

Appalled, I mentioned the case to my room-mate here in New York this afternoon.

“Welcome to America,” she said.

Alabama residents outside the Supreme Court. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.