We do not have to guess what the states currently subject to a key provision of the Voting Rights Act will do if the Supreme Court grants their wish to have that provision declared unconstitutional — top Republicans in those states have already told us. In a brief filed last August, Republican attorneys general from six of the states covered, at least in part, by Section 5 of the Voting Right Act complained that this landmark legislation is all that stands between them and implementing a common method of disenfranchising minority voters. Two of those states, South Carolina and Texas, admit that the Voting Rights Act stopped them from implementing a voter suppression law their governors already signed.
Of course, the voter suppression law at issue here are so-called “voter ID” provisions that require voters to present photo ID at the polls. Their supporters clam publicly that these laws are needed to prevent voter fraud at the polls, but this claim is absurd. Voters are more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit in-person voter fraud. A study of Wisconsin voters found that just 0.00023 percent of votes are the product of such fraud.
What these laws do accomplish is disenfranchisement; even conservative estimates suggest that they prevent 2 to 3 percent of registered voters from casting a ballot. This voter disenfranchisement is particularly pronounced among low-income voters, students and — a fact that is particularly salient for any discussion of the Voting Rights Act — racial minorities.
The Voting Rights Act, of course, protects against laws that expose minority voters to greater burdens than other voters. Section 5, the provision that the Supreme Court will consider tomorrow, requires parts of the country that have historically engaged in voter suppression to “pre-clear” any new voting laws with the Justice Department or a federal court in DC to make sure they do not impose racial burdens. Thus, voter suppression laws such as voter ID can be blocked before an election is held, preventing officials from being elected to office by an electorate that has been unlawfully culled of minority voters.
Lest there be any doubt, voter ID laws are just one of many tactics Republican lawmakers have turned to in order to reshape the electorate into something more likely to elect their favored candidates. Cuts to early voting days did not simply lead to long lines in states like Florida, they were also a direct attack on minority voters. As one Republican consultant admitted after last November’s election, “I know that the cutting out of the Sunday before Election Day was one of [the Florida GOP's] targets only because that’s a big day when the black churches organize themselves.” Voter purges targeted Latino voters. Republican laws restricting voter registration also cut into the minority vote, as “Hispanic and African-American voters are approximately twice as likely to register to vote through a voter registration drive as white voters.”
As President Lyndon Johnson warned when he originally proposed the Voting Rights Act to Congress, vote suppressors will bring “every device of which human ingenuity is capable” to deny the right to vote. This is why it is so important that Section 5 exist. Advocates of disenfranchisement are smart, nimble and capable of subtlety. The law must have a mechanism to block their efforts from taking effect before an election is held using illegal, vote suppressing procedures.
Indeed, it is deeply distressing that the Supreme Court would consider weakening the Voting Rights Act at the exact moment that Republican lawmakers are engaged in what President Bill Clinton called the most “determined effort to limit the franchise” since Jim Crow. What America needs today is not weaker voting rights. At the very least, we need to keep the protections we already have and expand Section 5′s coverage to include many Republican-controlled states that are not currently subject to its rule — an expansion the Voting Rights Act explicitly contemplates under what is known as the “bail-in” provision of the law. The lawmakers who reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006 could not have anticipated that Republican lawmakers in many states would begin a voter suppression campaign a few years later, but the drafters of the act were wise to include a provision that enables it to adapt to these circumstances.
Above all, it is hard not to escape the fact that, at the exact same time that the Republican Party is leading the charge to enact state-level voter suppression laws, the five justices most likely to strike down much of America’s most important voting rights law are the Court’s only Republicans. It will be difficult for the Roberts Court to maintain the perception that it places politics before the law if hands such a gift to Republican lawmakers bent on disenfranchisement.