This week’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down a key piece of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) could generate controversy in an empty bar. Amid all the anger and shouting, let’s take a closer look at the background and context of this case and the statute at its heart. The problem with what the Court did in Shelby County v. Holder is that it missed the subtle ways in which state and local governments have used their power to regulate the vote to dilute and even suppress it. The problem focuses on an early success of the VRA. In early 1969, VRA enforcement stood at a crossroads. As originally conceived, the Act attacked the wide range of voter exclusion strategies adopted by Southern states to deny African Americans access to the polls — for example, (1) unfairly applied literacy and/or understanding tests requiring voters to read, understand, and interpret any section of the state constitution to the satisfaction of a white (usually hostile) election official, (2) complicated registration requirements excluding minority voters on technical grounds and (3) financial barriers such as poll taxes. One simple way to undermine the black vote was to set up polling places in areas inconvenient for blacks for instance, in distant locations or in the middle of white sections of the town or county. By 1969, those methods were all but dead, thanks to combination of court rulings and the effective use of the pre-clearance provisions of the Act’s Section Five.
Being able to cast a ballot, however, was not the same thing as having an effective vote. Recognizing this subtle difference, Southern state and local election officials adopted new laws and procedures aimed not at excluding African American voters, but at diluting the impact of their vote on an election’s outcome. They achieved this goal by creating racially-gerrymandered districts that either packed African American voters into one district (limiting blacks to a single electoral seat while leaving other districts with white majorities); cracked the black population into many districts; or switched to at-large elections (both of these methods submerging black votes in a wider pool of white votes). The result was that, no matter how Southern blacks voted, few or none of their candidates won an election.