Voting Rights Enforcement - An Uneven Evolution
By Juliet Zavon
ENFORCING VOTING RIGHTS. We witness erosion of voter rights when court decisions gut mechanisms that protect them. The Supreme Court’s decision (Shelby County v. Holder) in 2013, for example, voided a key provision in the Voting Rights Act (1965) which had required jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination to get permission from the Department of Justice before passing new voting laws. Within 24 hours of the decision, Texas had a discriminatory photo id law. Other states followed suit. The floodgates to laws restricting voting were opened.
But courts flipping pro and con on voting rights enforcement is nothing new. A court case in 1876 set the stage for Jim Crow. When Tennessee election officials “refused to allow a Black man to vote, they were sued for violating the Enforcement Act of 1870 (a federal law whose provisions included penalties for interfering with the 15th Amendment’s guarantee of voting rights). The Supreme Court held that the relevant sections of the Enforcement Act were unconstitutional because they were not sufficiently tailored to enforce the 15th Amendment…
"and that the 15th Amendment ‘does not confer the right of suffrage upon any one’ but instead prohibits disenfranchisement on account of race. This narrowly construed reading of the 15th Amendment had devastating effects: southern states began passing laws that were facially neutral, but were clearly designed to disenfranchise Black voters… Poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and other nefarious voting rules were upheld against legal challenges because they technically applied to all voters.” (quoting the Democracy Docket)
But the courts don’t just curtail voting rights and neither do legislatures. My father always said, “The pendulum swings back and forth,” and that is what I think of when I look at the evolution of voter rights.