Fighting to Vote

Chuck Kennedy/When We All Vote
The crowd at a get-out-the-vote rally during a speech by Michelle Obama, Miami, Florida, September 2018

If you grew up, as I did, in the 1960s and 1970s, watching (albeit through a child’s eyes) the civil rights movement notch victory after victory, you could be forgiven for thinking at the time that that happy condition was normal. By high school, in the late 1970s, I began reading some history and learning about the struggles people endured to win the right to vote in this country. I thought then that these battles were over and done and won—that a new consensus had been achieved.

This state of affairs extended into the 1980s, and my view was reinforced by the observation that even conservative Republicans seemed to share in that consensus. Ronald Reagan backed the Voting Rights Act, signing into law in 1982 significant amendments to the original 1965 act. The most notable change made it easier for plaintiffs to sue states and localities under the act’s Section 2, which affirmed that they did not need to prove discriminatory intent in voting laws, just discriminatory effect. Jesse Helms mounted a lonesome filibuster in the Senate, but even he stood down. The bill passed both houses of Congress by large bipartisan margins. “As I’ve said before, the right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished,” Reagan remarked when he signed it.

But in retrospect, that moment, in June 1982, may have represented a zenith for voting rights in the United States. Even as Reagan was signing those amendments into law, others on the political right were devising ways to reverse this progress. The standard method was to challenge the Voting Rights Act in court, which produced mixed results at first but in recent years has met with great success, from the Republican Party’s point of view: in 2013 the Supreme Court ruled 5–4, in Shelby County v. Holder, that certain burdens imposed by the act on states and localities with a history of discrimination in voting laws no longer reflected reality—that such discrimination was no longer a problem in the United States. That assessment was a bit optimistic. One measure: in heavily black and Latino counties covered by the Voting Rights Act, there were 868 fewer polling places in 2016 than in 2012, according to a report by the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights. (Before Shelby, covered counties had to get Justice Department approval before they could make such moves.)

In other words, from the moment that black Americans finally won voting rights equal to those of white Americans, a significant number of white Americans started fighting to undo them. My teenage self was quite naive. Forty years later, it appears that what I thought was the new normal was in fact an aberration, a quick…

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