by Bunmi Awofeso
As I reflect on my initial reaction to the decision made by the Supreme Court on the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the overwhelming emotion I felt was confusion. What had the highest court in the nation decided? How did it affect me? How did it affect my community? It wasn’t until I had the privilege of being on an emergency call with civil rights leaders, advocates, and organizations that I gained answers and some clarity on the decision passed. After the call with leaders such as Mr. Marc Morial of the National Urban League, Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network, Mr. Ben Jealous of the NAACP, Ms. Melanie Campbell of the National Coalition of Black Civic Participation and Representative Marsha L. Fudge (D-OH) of the Congressional Black Caucus ended, I realized how many steps back the United States had taken from protecting voter equality for all.
On June 25, 2013 the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It came to a 5 to 4 decision:
The Majority: Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Justice Antonin Scalia, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.
The Minority: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan
Viewed as a central piece of legislation to the civil rights movement, the act is best summarized in Section 2, “No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”
Key to the authority of VRA is Section 4, which was struck down and deemed unconstitutional. Section 4 requires that states submit their plans, changes, or amendments to their current voting procedures and methods to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for review. Submissions to the DOJ are to ensure that the changes do not discriminate or impede upon a citizen’s ability to vote based on color. Changes such as relocation of polling sites, redistricting, and polling dates are just some examples the DOJ would need to review if a city, county, or state sought to change their voting procedures. If the plan or law were to be found discriminatory, implementation would be blocked. The repeal of Section 4, voted for by the majority, was thought to be an action to push Congress towards revising legislation that meets today’s era, statistics, and demographics. As Chief Justice Roberts stated, “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” The majority opinion from the decision cited the increasing numbers in voter registration for African-Americans and other minorities from 2004 to 2012 as indications of the improved conditions and why section 4 is no longer needed.
The majority, and those who support their decision, believes Section 2 and Section 5 provide the necessary and continued protection for minorities and those continually discriminated. Section 5 of VRA provides the necessary requirements a city, county, or state must meet for pre-clearance of a change to its voting procedures.
With the repeal of Section 4, civil rights leaders believe that the entire act has lost its “bite” and authority. A key reason why VRA worked so effectively can be attributed to the fact that the DOJ would review and reject any legislation that brought about discrimination. States where VRA applied include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, most of which are known to be part of the Jim Crow South. Without the DOJ serving as an overseer, who will States have to answer to now? The race to implement such dangerously discriminating laws was most evident when less than three hours after the decision from the Supreme Court, Texas instituted their Voter ID law. The law, which had been blocked by federal judges in 2012, was rolled out immediately along with this statement from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, “With today’s decision, the State’s voter ID law will take effect immediately… Redistricting maps passed by the Legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government.”
The repeal of Section 4 is a significant issue. It is not just an issue that is regional as well. Though the previously mentioned states have been most affected, all 50 states were required to abide by the law as it was previously constructed. The redistricting of New York City in 2012, for boroughs such as Brooklyn, Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, as well as Long Island, were all reviewed by the DOJ.
The fight to cease voter discrimination in America has gone from a preventive battle to a reactive one. No longer can the DOJ prevent the implementation of acts and laws that discriminate a particular group. Those who are victims of discrimination will have to now prove their case of discrimination on an individual basis in a court of law. To do so can be a long, arduous, and costly battle.
With the decision passed down, justice in a discrimination case may take months to achieve. But the influence one’s vote could have in electing a local, state, and federal official could be lost forever.
About the Author, Bunmi Awofeso
Bunmi Awofeso serves as Pharmacy Network Manager at NYCRx in New York. NYCRx’s mission is to provide access to low-cost prescriptions to the medically underserved, and to support healthcare facilities and pharmacies in maximizing the use of the 340B Federal Drug Discount Program. He’s been a member of the New York Urban League Young Professionals since 2011, and has served as Chair of the Civics & Economics Committee since 2012. Bunmi is also a mentor in the New York Urban League Scholar Connect Program, a mentoring program specifically designed for New York Urban League Whitney M. Young, Jr. Scholarship recipients.
Originally from the Bronx, NY, Bunmi earned his B.S. in Human Biology from the University at Albany (SUNY) in Albany, NY.