The Supreme Court’s decision to restrict the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 legislation that prohibits discrimination against voters on the basis of race or color, could harm African-American political representation at the city council level, a new study says. The study found that municipalities with the strongest gains in black political representation were those protected by a provision of the Voting Rights Act that was invalidated by the Supreme Court in June. Some experts say the new study shows that the Court’s decision could reverse the gains that black voters have made as a result of the act, or at least impede further progress. The study, to be published this month in the upcoming issue of The Journal of Politics, is among the first on the act’s effectiveness on black political representation, according to researchers at Rice University, Ohio University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Its conclusion is clear: The Voting Rights Act explains much of the electoral success of black candidates in city elections – and those gains could be at risk.
The landmark Voter Rights Act was meant to increase the number of minority voters and political candidates involved in the U.S. political process. Section 5 of the law required states and local municipalities with a history of discriminatory voting practices to obtain federal government approval – known as “preclearance” – before implementing any change that would affect voting.
In the new study, titled “Are We There Yet? The Voting Rights Act and Black Representation on City Councils,” researchers examined the impact of Section 5, using data from around 4,000 districts from 1981 through 2006.
They determined that African-Americans made their steepest political gains in areas protected by the Voting Rights Act.
In 1981, only 40 percent of cities protected by the Act had elected a black council member – but by 1991, that number had jumped to 74 percent. Gains in cities not protected by the Voting Rights Act occurred at a much slower pace, seeing only a 6 percent improvement in political representation during those 10 years.