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5 Years Later: The Effects of Shelby County Are Acutely Felt

Five years ago today, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court dismantled one of the greatest voting rights achievements in the history of this country. This morning, in Abbott v. Perez, the Court affirmed its disregard for voting discrimination by upholding racially gerrymandered districts in Texas.

When it passed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965, Congress took a major step towards fulfilling the promise—made almost 100 years earlier in the Fifteenth Amendment—that no citizen would be denied the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The centerpiece of the Act was a provision requiring certain states and other jurisdictions to get approval from the federal government before making any changes to their voting practices and procedures. This “preclearance” protection applied to jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination and helped to protect to protect the right to vote among traditionally marginalized populations. In Shelby County, the Court struck down the formula used to determine what jurisdictions were subject to preclearance, declaring that “[o]ur country has changed” and voting discrimination was no longer a major concern. In a 5–4 decision split along ideological lines, the Court stripped voters in nine states and dozens of counties and municipalities of the protection Congress had put in place.

Conservative state legislatures wasted no time enacting the restrictive and discriminatory policies that the federal government had blocked for almost fifty years. On the very day that Shelby County was decided, Texas announced that it would implement a strict voter ID law that had failed the preclearance process. A month after the decision, North Carolina passed a sweeping voter suppression law that was later struck down by a federal court for targeting African-American voters “with almost surgical precision.” Other states and dozens of counties and cities have followed suit—implementing voter ID laws, closing polling place, purging voters from the rolls, and engaging in other suppression tactics. As Demos President Heather McGhee said two years after Shelby County, “voters have been subject to more discrimination than at any time in the last fifty years.”

In Shelby County, the Supreme Court tried to downplay the harmful impact of its ruling with assurances that other sections of the VRA would protect against racial discrimination. Today, on the fifth anniversary of that decision, the Court revealed those assurances to be hollow. In Abbott v. Perez, the Court considered whether Texas’ legislative and congressional districts had been racially gerrymandered—i.e., drawn to dilute the voting power of people of color in the state. In another 5–4 decision, the Court upheld all but one of the challenged districts, writing that “the good faith of the state legislature must be presumed” in deciding whether a district map was drawn with discriminatory intent. In a forceful dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the majority went “out of its way” to uphold Texas’ maps in the face of “undeniable proof of intentional discrimination.” As in Shelby County, the majority ignored the realities of voter discrimination.

After opening the door to voter suppression while assuring Americans that federal law still prohibited discriminatory tactics, the Court now refuses to police those tactics. The VRA was passed to ensure the right to participate in our democracy for all citizens, regardless of race. As Justice Sotomayor wrote in her Abbott dissent, “The Court today does great damage to that right of equal opportunity. Not because it denies the existence of that right, but because it refuses its enforcement.”