In a 5-4 vote this past June, the Supreme Court dealt a serious blow to the legacy of the civil rights movement in Shelby County v. Holder. Striking down Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the decision nullified the coverage formula that determined which states and local governments required preapproval from the Department of Justice before modifying voting laws and requirements. Within hours of the decision, Texas and Mississippi state legislators announced their intentions to move forward with stricter voter identification standards. Stripped of preclearance, Attorney General Eric Holder announced plans to invoke Section 3—a related but less powerful statute—in order to block Texas from implementing its voter ID laws.
Meanwhile, Congress has yet to pass a new coverage formula to replace its supposedly outdated predecessor. With the current partisan divide, compromise seems highly unlikely, and the future of voting protections remains uncertain. Shelby, though comprising only a single moment in the history of civil rights, marks an important turning point. The discourse surround- ing Shelby highlights the increasing divergence of this modern movement from its mid-20th century predecessor, although the decision may serve as a rallying point for a broad, progressive coalition in the near future.
A Setback for Civil Rights
No one can deny the astounding progress of the past 50 years. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority in Shelby, optimistically proclaimed that while “problems remain in these States and others … our Nation has made great strides.” Pointing to dramatic increases in minority voter turnout and African-American political representation in preclearance states, Roberts argued that the voting rights protections ensured by Section 4(b) are no longer necessary.
The driving factors of the civil rights movement have shifted significantly; instead of race riots and Jim Crow laws, activ ists today grapple with voter identification laws and persistent socioeconomic gaps. But attempts to paint the United States as a post-racial society ignore reality. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg criticized the Court for prematurely declaring the goals of the Voting Rights Act fulfilled. Though she acknowledged that “the VRA wrought dramatic changes in the realization of minority voting rights,” she highlighted Section 4(b)’s continued relevance in the current age, arguing that “[ j]urisdictions covered by the preclearance requirement continued to submit, in large numbers, proposed changes to voting laws that the Attorney General declined to approve.” While the coverage formula is indeed outdated, anecdotal evidence suggests Section 4(b) retains its efficacy, especially in comparison with a nonexistent alternative.
The elimination of Section 4(b), then, reveals either ignorance of or indifference to the undercurrents of racism driving the fallout of Shelby. In addition to Texas and Mississippi, state legislators from North Carolina and Florida have announced new voter identification laws. These restrictions, which empirically target minorities, threaten to weaken or reverse much of the progress the Voting Rights Act has wrought. In an interview with the HPR, Theda Skocpol of Harvard explained that “in many ways we have seen concerted efforts to roll back minority voting rights and participation … where progress hasn’t been irreversible is in the area of political rights.” The seeming irreversibility of civil rights gains is a myth.
Indeed, the fallout of Shelby reveals the tentative nature of progress in the contemporary civil rights movement. Speaking with the HPR, Whitney Taylor, director of Public Advocacy at the Massachusetts ACLU, suggested that a lack of public awareness of institutionalized racism may have driven the Court’s decision in Shelby: “People need to understand civil rights, civil liberties, and the reality of racism in this country.”
A New Motivation for the Movement
Although the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby marks a setback for civil rights, it may also act as a rallying cause to energize and engage potential advocates. Skocpol argues that the Court’s decision “was not a reflection of popular opinion” but rather of a particular conservative jurisprudence. “In general, Americans understand that the right to vote is something that needs to be protected,” she added. By enabling states to move forward with voter identification laws targeting minority voters, Shelby may have generated common ground among progressives to revitalize civil rights activists.
In fact, organizations like the ACLU are hoping to use voting rights as an issue with which to engage the public. Mike Meno, legal director of the ACLU’s North Carolina branch, told the HPR that public outreach efforts have expanded in the wake of Shelby. “We’re especially concerned with voter outreach and education,” Meno explained. “People need to know what to expect at the polls.” Rebecca Robertson, legal director of the ACLU’s Texas branch, outlined their three-tiered approach to these issues: “Litigation is one strategy. Lobbying state legislators to work on a new coverage formula is another strategy. And public education is a third strategy.”
The issue of voting rights is uniquely poised to appeal to a wide range of demographics, and unlike in the 1960s, civil rights activists today benefit from an energy that spans racial divides. Many involved in the African-American civil rights movement align closely with other activist movements from the Latino civil rights movement to the feminist movement. A new focus on intersectionality has boosted youth involvement across the spectrum of activist causes: the universal appeal of issues such as voting rights for disenfranchised populations has succeeded in resonating with youth voters. According to Skocpol, “young people are always critical to movements to expand rights,” as demonstrated by much of the social media attention around the same-sex marriage cases. Meno adds that recent laws passed in North Carolina would disproportionately disenfranchise not only minorities but also college students, adding to their engagement in activist causes.
Youth involvement in social justice movements has already produced impressive gains and more importantly has revealed the millennial generation’s potential for political activism. During the fight over restrictive abortion legislation in Texas, Robertson described the youth involvement as “unprecedented.” The legislative battle energized youth activists, giving them an opportunity to flex their political muscle. If the public outcry over the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby is any indication, voting rights will enjoy similar popular support.
The success of the contemporary civil rights movement, like that of its predecessor, will be determined largely independently of the official branches of government. Perhaps Shelby has, as some commenters have suggested, sounded the death knell for expansive voting rights protections. But the future of the movement remains hopeful, in spite of these setbacks. An expanding youth activist base, coupled with widespread support for voting rights protection, suggests that if anything, the elimination of Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act will only further mobilize activists around a singular goal. The decision presents an inflection point to activists, a chance to frame voting rights as a fundamental civil right. If leveraged correctly, Shelby is a critical opportunity to regain the sense of unity that characterized the civil rights era of the 1960s.