In 2014, the state of Texas made it hard for me to vote. My out-of-state driver’s license didn’t verify the identity on my voter ID card. So I went home for my passport, a federal document that would trounce all. After two trips to the polling station, I finally managed to vote that day for a candidate who wouldn’t win because Texans didn’t want her. But I got to vote because I had time to jump through those hoops.
Some people weren’t so lucky last week.
After Tuesday’s results, there are a number of conversations we need to have: how we’re likely to watch the Democratic Party collapse in on itself; how black women turned out for Hillary Clinton in droves while a majority of white women voted for a bigot. But central to every conversation about 2016 is the right to the ballot. This was the first presidential election without the full force of the Voting Rights Act behind it. It’s a little early to know the full scope, but voter suppression loomed over Election Day.
The denial of voting rights has been a systematic effort by a strain of conservatives who rose to the highest ranks of government.
There were 868 fewer polling stations in states like Arizona and North Carolina on Tuesday, which led to longer lines. In Wisconsin, The Nation reported, 300,000 registered voters lacked the correct kind of ID. In Milwaukee, according to the New York Times, the greatest voter declines were in “areas where lack of IDs was most common” and voter turnout declined by 41,000 from 2012. In North Carolina, the Republican party cheered at the decline in African American voter turnout and attempts to limit Sunday voting.
While we wait for the full autopsy of Tuesday’s election, we have to decide if everyone’s right to the ballot box is still worth protecting.
Some of the most critical sections of the Voting Rights Act were gutted in 2013 in the Supreme Court decision for Shelby County v. Holder. Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote the majority opinion asserting that states covered by preclearance, the federal oversight to states’ electoral policies, did not have the same conditions that originally necessitated their policies. (In other words, black people were no longer being beaten and arrested for attempting to vote, so we must not have a voter suppression problem!) The opinion conveniently omitted that the reason access to the ballot was better in states like Alabama, South Carolina, Arizona, and California was because the Department of Justice repeatedly nixed state-level policies that limited access to the ballot.
The denial of voting rights has been a systematic effort by a strain of conservatives who rose to the highest ranks of government, most particularly Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts. The issue of voting has been in Roberts’ sight since he first clerked for the Supreme Court. Ari Berman, author of Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle For Voting Rights In America, chronicled his resistance to the protection of voting rights. This included clerking for the racist Justice William Rehnquist and his time in Ronald Reagan’s Department of Justice. It took him decades, but he finally got to limit access to the ballot.
The Voting Rights Act is what kept state and local laws at bay.
The Voting Rights Act—and its subsequent extensions that protected greater and greater number of Americans—is what kept state and local laws at bay. It’s what quashed gerrymandering in North Carolina and softened voter ID laws in Texas. But the Supreme Court decided that higher levels of minority voter turnout meant we had fixed the system rather than a natural result of actively protecting minority access to electoral politics. Roberts wrote, “Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions” to determine which states should be covered under a new formula. But I just don’t see House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell putting that on their agendas anytime soon.
Before Justice Antonin Scalia died, he helped keep a Supreme Court majority tilted toward a strain of conservatism that believed black and brown people were exaggerating the effects of systemic racism. After Tuesday, that majority is all but guaranteed to remain in place for another generation. Healthcare, abortion access, and yes, the right to vote will all be up for grabs.
What happened on Tuesday is bigger than Hillary Clinton’s loss of the presidency. Everyone, and I mean everyone, should be shaking with anger at the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act, and the almost-exclusively white group of men overseeing it.