During his “I’m With Her (More or Less)” speech at the Democratic National Convention on Monday, Sen. Bernie Sanders made a vitally important argument about the 2016 campaign: That it’s about more than who the president for the next four years will be; it’s about who will be on the Supreme Court for years to come. “This election is about overturning Citizens United, one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in the history of our country,” he said. He added that Hillary Clinton’s future justices “will also defend a woman’s right to choose, workers’ rights, the rights of the LGBT community, the needs of minorities and immigrants, and the government’s ability to protect the environment.” Every last one of those promises is very serious business. But Sanders neglected to mention one of the other worst Supreme Court decisions in the history of the country—one with tangible implications for the November elections and one that has gotten far less attention than his much-loathed Citizens United. It has had as much to do with disenfranchising America’s have-nots as the campaign finance case. It’s the case that made voting an uphill battle again.
In 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder, the court issued a landmark decision that eviscerated core components of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. We’re living with the fallout today, and the next president and his or her judicial appointments will go a long way toward determining when and how basic voting rights are respected in this country. Last week demonstrated the centrality of the courts to broader voting rights more than any other in 2016, with a bevy of critical court rulings that showed that the fight is a long way from done.
The Voting Rights Act was originally enacted in 1965 to eradicate the racially tainted voter suppression that plagued the Jim Crow South. When the court voted 5–4 to strike down Section 4 of the act, it was an enormous change to the law, freeing many jurisdictions with historical records of discrimination from having to get federal preclearance before changing their voting laws. After Shelby County, several states took advantage of their new freedom to create voting laws with discriminatory effects without the feds looking over their shoulders. Some waited only a few days to restrict voting again. And in the future—possibly the very near future—the court will look again at state efforts to limit voting.