The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to protect the voting rights of mostly black voters in mostly Southern states. It mandated, among other things, that jurisdictions covered by the law have new voting laws reviewed by the government to assure that they weren’t discriminatory. That provision was tossed by the Supreme Court in 2013. A Texas voter ID law that had been rejected by the Department of Justice prior to the court’s decision was reintroduced immediately afterward — and was quickly found to be discriminatory. During his confirmation hearing last year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was asked about the Voting Rights Act. “It is intrusive. The Supreme Court on more than one occasion has described it legally as an intrusive act, because you’re only focused on a certain number of states,” the then-Alabama senator said in January 2017.
It was a county in Alabama, Shelby County, that brought the lawsuit that led to the court’s decision. At the time Sessions celebrated the move: “There is racial discrimination in the country, but I don’t think in Shelby County, Alabama, anyone is being denied the right to vote because of the color of their skin,” he said. “It would be much more likely to have those things occur in Philadelphia, Chicago or Boston.”
That history is newly relevant because of the rationale offered by the Department of Justice in requesting that the Census Bureau add a question regarding citizenship to the 2020 survey. The Justice Department says the question is necessary because it requires specific data to identify violations of the Voting Rights Act.