Supreme Court Voting Rights Act: We Are All to Blame When the Right to Vote Is Under Attack

Chief Justice John Roberts correctly asserted in his opinion on the Voting Rights Act, "Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically," and he's right — though sadly, things have not changed for the better. As the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington quickly approaches, heroes and martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement find part (and effectively all) of the VRA neutered by the court's decision. The aftermath of the decision prompted lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to interject their two cents and to engage in Washington’s beloved pastime of blame game hot-potato. Here’s why we collectively, but not equally, shoulder the blame.

No matter the metric you use, the United States consistently ranks far below its “developed” counterparts. Putting aside arguments about electoral systems such as Australia and other countries' compulsory voting, when America is compared against countries that blatantly rig the ballot box, we — the land of the free — take universal suffrage for all citizens over the age of 18 for granted. When civil rights advocate and U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.) bemoans, "Today, the Supreme Court stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965," the 42.5% of eligible voters that abstained this past election should feel ashamed and those that didn’t drag their ambivalent fellow citizens to the polls are just as much to blame.

The court's interpretation of Section 4 of the VRA is apt in the sense that voter disenfranchisement is no longer solely a Southern problem. With 30 states requiring IDs in order to cast a ballot, long lines appearing in disproportionately minority districts, and a plethora of other unique issue arising both inside and outside of legislatures, disenfranchisement in the 21st century has manifested itself in new forms. Antiquated provisions like literacy tests are thankfully dead but as a country we now must grapple with a litigious push for greater pre-requisites for voting. Even though parts of the Voting Rights Act were out of date (by that I mean they weren't nearly exhaustive enough), Section 4 was by no means impotent: As Brennan Center for Justice President Michael Waldman argues: “The Supreme Court’s decision is at odds with recent history. The Voting Rights Act was vital in 2012, not just 1965. For nearly five decades, it has been the nation’s most effective tool to eradicate racial discrimination in voting. And it is still critical today." In theory, the invalidating of Section 4 would re-open the voting-rights debate and provide an avenue for effective reform, but … oh wait, they forgot who was in Congress.

If you’re not a fan of legislative activity, then you probably loved the 112th Congress, but most people didn’t. Before berating those members currently sleeping in their seats, it's worth noting Congress extended the VRA four times but each time marginally if at all altered the content. Most recently in 2006, Congress engaged in cosmetic legislation by extending the law another 25 years but failing to restructure it to meet the voter disenfranchisement challenges of today. As referred to above, the court ruled Section 4 unconstitutional, meaning Section 5 stands. Congress now has the duty to upgrade this key protection and ensure our elections remain free, fair, and accessible for all Americans.” The 113th Congress’ legislative efficacy — most recently displayed in the House’s inability to pass a Farm Bill backed by Speaker Boehner — means that the court's decision passes responsibility on to Congress, whose approval rating is a little higher than the unemployment rate. 

In sum, come August 28, we owe those that marched 50 years ago much more than commemoration. Over the last 50 years many praiseworthy efforts have been undertaken to ensure that we all have the right to vote. Sadly, many more have taken that liberty for granted that liberty and fail to see the disfranchisement still pervasive within our system. We are a part of the problem, but luckily we can also be the solution.