Voting Rights Act Supreme Court: To See Why We Still Need the Law, Take This Test


The Supreme Court's recent decision in Shelby County v. Holder hasn't completely destroyed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — just nearly so. It overturned section 4B, which mandated federal oversight of changes in voting procedure in jurisdictions that have a history of using a “test or device” to impede enfranchisement. What does that mean, you ask?

Section 4B stopped individual states and counties from requiring such things as literacy tests for black citizens (or other minorities — but in 1965, in the South, of course, the issue was civil rights for black citizens) before allowing them to vote. Section 4B kept federal eyes on those previously offending counties to make certain they didn't backslide, and it reviewed new voting "requirements," such as voter ID cards, which, until the section was overturned were in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Overturning section 4B has had two immediate outcomes, one good and one not so good. The good outcome, as far as I can see, is that there is a bipartisan movement afoot in Congress to "fix" the Voting Rights Act to meet the Supreme Court's new requirements and to secure every American citizen's right to vote unimpeded by tests or devices.

The not-so-good outcome is that, thus far, five states previously restricted under section 4B, Texas, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Virginia, have already rushed to push voter suppression/voter ID legislation through their state legislatures. Arkansas, not previously bound by 4B, has also recently passed a voter ID law and other state legislatures are considering similar bills.

Be that as it may, the VRA and its ultimate fix are now in the right hands — those of Congress. If Senate and House, Republicans and Democrats cannot reach reasonable consensus regarding the protection of our voting rights before the midterm elections in 2014, we'll have another election issue to argue.

It is in the hope that things do not reach that impasse, that I offer the following from Slate. Friday's historical article from The Vault was a copy of the actual literacy test offered to blacks in Louisiana in the 1960s. The "official" rules said the test was supposed to be administered to everyone, the prospective voter had 10 minutes to complete the test, and that one wrong answer meant failure.

There are 30 questions on the test. That already means that if you read slowly or poorly, or misunderstand a question, you fail. And if the white county clerk hands this thing to you — a person of color? Take a look at it. I read through the first five questions, realized that I had taken more than five minutes to understand what was required of me, and also realized immediately that no white person would ever have been given that test.