Voting rights advocates are girding for a series of crucial battles that will play out over the next twelve months in Congress, in the courts, and in state legislatures. Victories could go a long way to reversing the setbacks of the last year. Defeats could help cement a new era in which voting is more difficult, especially for racial minorities, students, and the poor.
Despite some scattered efforts by states to improve voting access, the right to vote took a big step backwards last year. Republican legislatures in states across the country continued to advance restrictive voting laws, while a major Supreme Court ruling, Shelby County v. Holder, badly weakened the Voting Rights Act (VRA).
Perhaps the key voting rights showdown of 2014 will take place on Capitol Hill, as the push to update and strengthen the VRA gathers momentum.
The Shelby ruling, which freed areas with a history of discrimination from federal oversight, “leaves a big hole in our voting rights law that Congress will have to fill at some point,” said Dan Tokaji, an election law professor at Ohio State University.
There’s disagreement about just how it should do that. Some want an improved VRA to mimic the existing law by continuing to center on barring racial discrimination in voting. That might be the best way to crack down on the kind of under-the-radar schemes to reduce minority voting power that we’ve seen lately on the local level in places like Beaumont, Texas, and Augusta, Georgia.
“Eighty-five percent of objections under Section 5 were to local-level changes,” said Spencer Overton, a law professor at George Washington University. “From a pure policy standpoint, being accurate about the problem, these local jurisdictions present significant problems.”