Three years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) in Shelby County v. Holder, and in five months America will vote in the first presidential election in 50 years without full Voting Rights Act protections. The consequences could be far reaching affecting the make up of Congress, state legislatures, and even the Supreme Court itself.
The VRA has been hailed as one of the most important pieces of American legislation – a true Congressional landmark. Banning racial discrimination in voting, it ensured that state and municipal governments were prohibited from passing legislation that would deny Americans the equal right to vote regardless of their race. Since its initial passage, Congress has amended the VRA 5 times to expand its protections. However, on June 23, 2013 the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Section 4(b) of the VRA was unconstitutional.
Section 4(b) of the VRA contained the coverage formula which was the basis for determining which jurisdictions were subject to a federal court review of any changes to state voting laws, known as preclearance, as required by Section 5 of the VRA. While the Court did not touch Section 5, removing the formula within Section 4(b) effectively allowed states and local governments to bypass federal preclearance before implementing any changes to their voting rights laws or practices.
Within the past three years 17 states have passed laws that infringe on the right to vote. These laws have ranged from strict photo ID requirements to restrictions on where and when voters can register and vote. For perspective, over 16 million registered voters in the U.S. lack a current government-issued photo ID. LGBTQ people of color, LGBTQ youth and transgender Americas are among those most affected by a weakened voting rights law. Transgender people are particularly vulnerable to voting discrimination and disenfranchisement due primarily to challenges around valid identification documents. In addition, many LGBTQ people face compounded discrimination based on other characteristics, including race, age and socio-economic status. These vulnerabilities weaken the entire community’s voting power.
At a time where the LGBTQ community is experiencing tremendous legislative backlash, we must continue to work with our coalition partners to restore the Voting Rights Act. The strength of the LGBTQ community, our legal protections and our democracy depends on nothing less.