How to fight the spread of voter suppression

How to fight the spread of voter suppression

The Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision gutted the Voting Rights Act, the most effective tool to prevent racial discrimination in our elections that the country has ever known. The decision came down six years ago this week and it is clear the court made a grave mistake as voter suppression has proliferated across the country.

It’s also clear what we must do: restore the race-conscious protections of the Voting Rights Act and enact affirmative measures to expand ballot access across the country.

In the early days of the republic, only white men who owned property could vote. After the Civil War, the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 provided that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged” based on race. But that decree was immediately undermined by white supremacist violence and other forms of voter suppression, particularly in the South. 


The promise of equal access to the ballot didn’t become real until almost a century later when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, requiring states and localities with a history of voter suppression to “preclear” all election changes with the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court to ensure they did not harm voters of color. 

In Shelby County, Chief Justice John Roberts ruled with a 5-4 majority that “our country has changed” and the formula that determined which jurisdictions were covered by the act’s preclearance requirement no longer “speaks to current conditions.” The thrust of his opinion was that racism was largely a thing of the past, and the Voting Rights Act was no longer necessary. He could not have been more wrong.

Hours after the decision, Texas officials announced they would implement a strict photo ID requirement that had been blocked under the Voting Rights Act. A month later, North Carolina rammed through a sweeping set of voting restrictions that a federal court later ruled targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision.” In 2016, 14 states imposed new restrictive voting laws for the first time. That election, the first presidential contest without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, sent Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCuban embassy in Paris attacked by gasoline bombs Trump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios Trump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race MORE to the White House.

Every year brings devious new ploys at voter suppression in states previously covered by the preclearance requirement. In early 2019, Texas attempted a massive voter purge aimed at naturalized citizens — the vast majority of them people of color — falsely claiming that they had committed fraud and demanding that they present their passport or naturalization certificate for inspection.

It’s evident that discriminatory voting rules continue to pose an existential threat to our democracy. So, what do we do about it?


First, we must restore the Voting Rights Act — specifically, its race-conscious preclearance requirement. The Voting Rights Advancement Act, introduced by Rep. Terri SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea SewellDemocratic tensions simmer in House between left, center Alabama museum unveils restored Greyhound bus for Freedom Rides' 60th anniversary Rep. Terri Sewell declines to run for Senate in Alabama MORE (D-Ala.), would do exactly this. We won’t defeat racism by ignoring it. We must confront it head-on.

Second, we must aggressively pursue an agenda of full democratic participation. This means enacting automatic voter registration, same day registration, early voting, pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, independent redistricting commissions, and rights restoration to people with convictions. These measures will do a great deal to close the racial gap in voter registration and participation.

Washington state enacted a package of these reforms in 2018, as did New Mexico, Nevada and New York in 2019. Where politicians had stymied reform, citizens launched successful ballot initiatives last year in Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Utah. The For the People Act, which passed the House in March, would enact many of these reforms at the federal level.

Presidential candidates should support that bill and propose still more ambitious plans to address discrimination in elections. Ripe ideas include:

The shape of our democracy will determine the direction this country takes on our most pressing policy issues — health care, climate change, criminal justice, gun control, reproductive freedom and more. Every American deserves a voice in that process, whatever the color of their skin. To make that a reality, on this sixth anniversary of Shelby County, we must be honest that racial discrimination persists in voting and take the bold action necessary to stamp it out.

Chiraag Bains is the director of Legal Strategies at Demos, a racial justice organization that works toward solutions to political and economic inequity. He previously served as senior counsel to the assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice during the Obama administration. Follow him on Twitter @chiraagbains.