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Protect our democracy: Restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act

Ten years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a major blow to democracy. In Shelby County v. Holder, the high court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), the crown jewel of the Civil Rights Movement and one of the most effective pieces of civil rights legislation ever.

It did so by nullifying the preclearance provision, which had for nearly half a century blocked voter suppression laws in the South and other jurisdictions with a demonstrable history of discrimination in voting. Eight years later, in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the court further weakened the VRA by making it harder to challenge discriminatory voting laws.

The Shelby decision unleashed a wave of restrictive, discriminatory voting laws that have made it harder for millions of people to cast a ballot, especially people of color. In the decade since the high court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, 29 states have passed nearly 100 restrictive voting laws. Voters have felt the toll of these laws, which may have been blocked by preclearance previously. Here are just a few issues encountered by Southern Poverty Law Center clients:

  • In Mississippi, a blind voter who is unable to vote without assistance from a trusted neighbor finds casting a ballot even more difficult under a new state law that severely limits the people authorized to assist voters and criminalizes those who try.
  • In Alabama, thousands of Black voters across multiple counties found their voices silenced by Alabama’s racially gerrymandered state House and Senate maps. The state also silenced Black residents though its racially gerrymandered congressional maps and then blatantly defied a court order to remedy the discrimination, underscoring the urgent need to restore the VRA. Overall, dozens of racially gerrymandered voting maps in use in the Deep South today have diluted the power of Black voters and other voters of color.
  • In Georgia, after a new law shortened the voting period for the runoffs, long lines meant a voter had to go to the polls three times before she was finally able to vote. Had she not succeeded in that third attempt, she likely wouldn’t have voted at all due to pending travel for work.

Elsewhere, laws have closed polling stations, purged voter rolls, curbed voting by mail, imposed strict ID requirements and limited multilingual voting materials. Growing racial turnout gaps, especially in the Deep South, show the discriminatory impact of these laws. The harm in the Deep South alone caused by the gutting of the VRA a decade ago has been enough to fill a report we issued earlier this year.

While the situation is dire, the good news is that the solution is clear: federal legislation to restore, strengthen and modernize the VRA. In each Congress since the devasting Shelby decision, lawmakers have introduced a bill to do so. The last attempt came within inches of passage but was ultimately blocked by an arcane Senate procedure with racist roots. Soon, Congress is expected to once again introduce such legislation. The bill – the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act – is named for the late congressman and civil rights hero who was beaten by state troopers during the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March in Alabama.

The congressman taught us that as we fight for the fundamental right to vote, we would do well to remember the long history that has brought us to this place. Doing so can help us find courage to continue the fight – which didn’t start 10 years ago, or even 50 years ago.

It goes all the way back to the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction, when Black Americans fought, and in some cases died, to secure the right to vote – ultimately winning the 14th Amendment establishing equal protection (among other things) and 15th Amendment prohibiting denial of the right to vote based on race. After white supremacist legislatures, especially in the South, found ways to subvert the U.S. Constitution, Black Americans – including a young John Lewis – continued to fight for the right to vote. Their efforts won the passage of the VRA in the first place.

Members of Congress would do well to remember history, too. Voting rights have historically been a bipartisan issue in Congress. Since enactment, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been reauthorized five times with large, bipartisan majorities, most recently in 2006 when it passed unanimously in the U.S. Senate (98-0) and was signed by Republican President George W. Bush.

After all, voting is not a partisan issue. The right to vote is the most sacred and fundamental right in our democracy. Generations of Americans died or – in the case of the namesake of this legislation – shed their blood for the right to vote. Every eligible American must be able to cast their vote in fair, accessible and transparent elections.

Just as it acted to expand and protect the fundamental right to vote during Reconstruction and again during the Civil Rights Movement, it is once again time for Congress to act. It must act to protect the voting rights of communities of color and all Americans. It must restore, strengthen and modernize the VRA without further delay.

Laura Williamson is the senior policy advisor for voting rights and civic engagement at the SPLC.

Photo at top: In a photo from 1982, John Lewis (third from right) helps lead a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, organized in part to support measures that would strengthen the Voting Rights Act. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)