With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Republicans Are Trying to Kill What’s Left of the Voting Rights Act

In 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion gutting Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required that states with a long history of discrimination had to approve their voting changes with the federal government. That ruling led to a wave of new voter suppression laws in states including Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas.

Roberts justified his position by pointing to the continued existence of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which applies nationwide and outlaws the denial or abridgment of the right to vote on account of race or color. “Our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting found in Section 2,” he wrote in Shelby County v. Holder.

But now, in two Supreme Court cases from Arizona that will be heard on March 2, Republicans are trying to kill what remains of the VRA. Influential Republicans at the state and federal level (including Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell in an amicus brief) have asked the court’s conservative majority to weaken Section 2 or strike it down all together. If they succeed, the VRA would provide little to no protection to voters of color facing an onslaught of new GOP voter suppression efforts across the country, where more than 250 bills restricting voting access have been introduced in 43 states in the past two months.

The GOP’s push to weaken Section 2 dates back more than 40 years—and Roberts was a key foot soldier in that effort.

In the early 1980s, decades before he became chief justice, Roberts served as a young lawyer in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department. Before Roberts arrived at the DOJ, civil rights groups had filed suit against Mobile, Alabama, where a Black candidate had never been elected to the city council even though Black people comprised a third of the port city’s population. The lower courts said that the city’s election system discriminated against Black voters, but in April 1980 the Supreme Court sided with Mobile, ruling that “racially discriminatory motivation is a necessary ingredient of a Fifteenth Amendment violation.” That meant smoking-gun evidence of intentional discrimination, which was very difficult to find, was needed to strike down laws or overhaul elections systems that blocked people of color from voting or winning elections.

Democrats and civil-rights groups were outraged. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives amended Section 2 of the VRA so that voters of color only had to show that a voting law or election system had the result of discriminating against them, not the intent, which was much easier to prove.

That set up a major battle with the Reagan administration, which wanted to keep the intent requirement for Section 2. Roberts became the point person for the Justice Department’s push to constrain the VRA. “Violations of Section 2 should not be made too easy to prove,” he wrote in 1981, in one of 25 memos opposing the House bill, “since they provide a basis for the most intrusive interference imaginable by federal courts into state and local processes.” (I tell this story in detail in my book Give Us the Ballot.)

Roberts lost that fight when the US Senate overwhelmingly extended the VRA in 1982 for another 25 years and included expansive language protecting the right to vote. But now, four decades later, Republicans are once again taking aim at Section 2, trying to roll back critical voting rights protections for voters of color. 

Read entire article at Mother Jones