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Congress must restore the legislative heart of the Voting Rights Act

Charles J. Ogletree Jr.

The decision in Shelby County v. Holder has my father, a native of Alabama, turning in his grave because The Voting Rights Act of 1965 made this critical right accessible to all citizens and now, with its deeply misguided decision to invalidate the formula used to identify states and jurisdictions requiring preclearance approval, five justices have chosen to rip out what Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) has called the “heart and soul” of the Voting Rights Act.

The result is a patient gasping for breath. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg summed up the illogic of this decision brilliantly: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

As a rapidly growing number of states impose new restrictions on voting, we can see that voter suppression is alive and well.

This decision moves us backward at a time when voting rights are being threatened at a level we haven’t witnessed in decades — indeed, since before the Voting Rights Act was passed. Granted, those seeking to disenfranchise “undesirable” voters no longer use literacy tests. Their strategies are more sophisticated now, but their intent is all too familiar.

As a rapidly growing number of states impose new restrictions on voting, we can see that voter suppression is alive and well. Consider, for example, the photo identification requirements that have passed in 20 state legislatures since 2003. Ostensibly designed to prevent in-person “voter fraud” (which research has shown is practically nonexistent), these laws make it harder for members of minority groups — youth, the poor, women, the elderly or anyone who does not possess a government-issued photo identification — to vote.

Who are they kidding? All but one of these laws were passed by Republican legislatures and signed by Republican governors. A few legislators privately admitted the obvious: these laws are designed to keep certain voters away from the ballot box. To limit the long-term damage of this decision, Congress must move swiftly to update the legislation’s formula so that the heart of the Voting Rights Act can be restored. 

Charles J. Ogletree Jr. is a Harvard Law School professor and founding and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.