The attack on voting rights unleashed by Republican lawmakers over the past three years has made casting a ballot in parts of the deep south as fraught as it was in 1965 before the Voting Rights Act banned racial discrimination in elections, electoral monitors say. Marion Warren, the registrar of voters for the small town of Sparta, Georgia, said that officials in local Hancock County have been so ruthless in impeding voting by the black community that the clock has been set back 50 years. “It’s harder for a minority to vote now than it was in the state of Georgia in 1965 – it’s causing voter apathy all across the county and that’s the best form of voter suppression you can find,” he said. Warren was making his bleak assessment on the third anniversary of Shelby County v Holder, the controversial ruling by the US supreme court that punched a gaping hole in the Voting Rights Act that for half a century had assured minority groups of untrammeled access to the polls. Decided precisely three years ago, on 25 June 2013, the ruling put an end to safeguards that had obliged the worst offenders – mainly states or parts of states in the deep south – to apply for federal approval before they tampered with any aspect of their voting procedures.
The minute the court’s opinion was unveiled, an unseemly scramble began by Republican-controlled state assemblies to erect new barriers to voting that disproportionately affected African American, Latino, Native American, older and poor voters. Texas rushed through its voter ID law within hours of the supreme court announcement. North Carolina passed its monster voter suppression law, HB589, less than a month after Shelby. The upcoming presidential election will be the first big test of the new post-Shelby, and thus post-Voting Rights Act, world. The prospects are ominous.
The Brennan Center for Justice has calculated that come November some 17 states will have new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential race. Of those, only seven had been covered by the federal “pre-clearance” rules, suggesting that Shelby has had a wide knock-on effect beyond states immediately impacted. “The decision has certainly emboldened states, even those that weren’t covered, to feel that it’s OK to go ahead and put in place ruses that will make it hard for people to vote,” said Jennifer Clark, a Brennan Center counsel specializing in voting.