Just a few months after a group of voting-rights activists including John Lewis were beaten by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was made law.
Aug. 6 marks 55 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act and just seven years since the Supreme Court struck down its key enforcement provision, which advocates say paved the way for the return of widespread minority voter suppression.
The act, designed to outlaw discriminatory voting practices in the Jim Crow South and protect the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, was "by far one of the most successful pieces of federal civil rights legislation" until it was gutted by the court, according to Nancy Abudu, the deputy legal director of voting rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Voting rights advocates like Abudu say Black voters in particular still face tremendous obstacles as they try to cast their ballots, and the coronavirus pandemic, which disproportionately affects people of color, will only add to the challenge of voting during the November election. In the wake of the death of rights icon and Georgia congressman Lewis, advocates and activists are hoping to draw attention to and restore the power of the Voting Rights Act.
"If we had a Voting Rights Act that really had teeth behind it, we would have something even stronger in our arsenal when it comes to protecting the voting rights of communities of color," Abudu said.
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What is the Voting Rights Act?
The Voting Rights Act provided the government a way to enforce the 15th Amendment, outlawed literacy tests and other practices used to disenfranchise racial and language minorities and provided nationwide protection for voting rights.
The core piece of the act is the Section 5 preclearance requirement, which requires certain communities to get approval from federal authorities before making any changes that would affect voting to ensure that proposed change would not result in discrimination.
Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia were among the jurisdictions deemed to be engaged in egregious voting discrimination by the act's coverage formula. Some localities in California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota were also covered.
The effects of the act were almost immediate, with Black voter registration increasing by nearly 70% by the next election, according to James Cobb, history professor at the University of Georgia and a former president of the Southern Historical Association.
"It's has an enormous effect on Black voter registration which way more than doubles," Cobb said. "Pretty quickly you see the South gaining not just Black voters but Black officeholders."
Research has shown that the preclearance requirement substantially increased voter turnout, driven by minorities, as recently as 2012.
'The Voting Rights Act worked so well it lost its job'
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the coverage formula was unconstitutional in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, leaving Section 5 unenforceable. In the court's decision, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that voter registration and turnout had risen dramatically and reasoned that the formula was "based on decades-old data and eradicated practices."
"Racial disparity in those numbers was compelling evidence justifying the preclearance remedy and the coverage formula," he wrote. "There is no longer such a disparity."
In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg compared the decision to get rid of preclearance because it was effective to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Cobb echoed Ginbsurg saying, "You could argue that what happened was the Voting Rights Act worked so well it lost its job."
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In the wake of the Shelby County decision, "efforts to suppress the voting rights of African Americans have intensified," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Lawmakers in 25 states have introduced hundreds of measures that make it harder to vote since 2010, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Following the Shelby County decision, many states – including those previously covered by the preclearance requirement – began implementing voter ID laws, purging voter rolls, closing polling places, cutting early voting and challenging eligibility, according to a 2018 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Without preclearance, elections occurred under laws that were later found to be intentionally discriminatory to people of color, but enforcement and litigation under the Voting Rights Act's remaining provisions have been "inadequate, costly and often slow," the commission found.
"Without that federal review process, we’ve literally seen rampant voter suppression efforts overtake parts of the country within the last several years," Clarke said. "States like Georgia, Texas and North Carolina top the list."
COVID-19 adds 'a new dimension'
Due to centuries of systemic health and social inequalities, Black people are hospitalized and die of COVID-19 at higher rates than other Americans, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows. Approximately 1 in 4 COVID-19 deaths are among the non-Hispanic Black population, despite only 13% of the total U.S. population being non-Hispanic Black, according to the CDC. That may make voting in person this November an even bigger challenge for African Americans.
"In the wake of the pandemic, voters are experiencing significant challenges," Clarke said. "African Americans are bearing the brunt of the crisis at starker rates than other communities and when you add on top of that voter suppression efforts that are racially motivated, it makes for a very challenging situation."
In addition to the risk of coronavirus, those who choose to vote in person may face long lines, technical difficulties and a dramatically reduced number of polling places. All three experts pointed to Georgia's June primary as an example, which advocates have called “a complete catastrophe” that is ominous for November.
"Without question Black voters would have an easier time accessing the ballot box today in Georgia if we had the full protection of the Voting Rights Act in place," Clarke said.
Mail-in voting has been embraced in many states as an option to prevent the spread of the virus that could follow large groups gathering at the polls, and although all 50 states allow it to some degree, Cobb said the issue has become politicized, leading lawmakers to try to make it more difficult to vote by mail.
"It's kind of opened up a new front in the battle," Cobb said. "It adds a new dimension to not only to the substance or the content of political debate and campaign but to the whole process of determining the outcome of the election."
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Lawmakers, advocates call for restoration of the Voting Rights Act
Abudu of the Southern Poverty Law Center called for the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, the passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act and the inclusion of election administration funding in the packages passed by Congress. She added that after the November election, redistricting may be another "battleground issue."
The Voting Rights Advancement Act was passed in December with Lewis presiding over the vote. The bill, which the House agreed last week to name after Lewis, who died July 17 at age 80, would amend the 1965 law to create a new way to determine if states require oversight for violating minority voting rights.
It has not been taken up by the Republican-controlled Senate, and Black lawmakers are also calling on Congress to honor Lewis' legacy and support the legislation.
"We want to see some real leadership at the state level with the support from the federal government when it comes to ensuring everyone who’s eligible has a real opportunity to vote," Abudu said. "I don’t pretend that’s an exhaustive list of our demands, but that’s at least a good start."
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Contributing: Maureen Groppe and Deborah Barfield Berry
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Voting Rights Act 55th anniversary: Minority voter suppression remains