“Our country has changed, and 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.”
—Shelby County v. Holder (Roberts, C.J.)
This time last year, Alabama’s chief elections official landed in the national spotlight for delivering a screed against nonvoters that many people interpreted as an attack on African Americans in the state, who have long faced barriers to voting. “If you’re too sorry or lazy to get up off of your rear and to go register to vote, or to register electronically, and then to go vote, then you don’t deserve that privilege,” Republican John Merrill said in an interview with documentary filmmaker Brian Jenkins. Jenkins had asked why he opposed automatically registering Alabamians when they reach voting age, and his response sizzled with anger toward people who “think they deserve the right because they’ve turned 18.” So he made a pledge: “As long as I’m secretary of state of Alabama, you’re going to have to show some initiative to become a registered voter in this state.”
In the year since he made those comments, Merrill has in many ways made good on his promise. When Alabamians go to the polls on Tuesday to elect Republican Roy Moore or Democrat Doug Jones as their new senator, an untold number will not participate due to the decisions made by Merrill’s office—which is in charge of ensuring a fair voting process—and by the Republicans who run the state. These laws and policies overwhelmingly make it harder for minorities to vote.
In recent years, Alabama Republicans have taken steps to protect their grip on power by making it harder for African Americans and Latinos to vote. They passed a law requiring voters to show a government-issued photo ID, a measure that has been found to disproportionately disenfranchise African Americans and Latinos, who are more likely to lack such an ID and face impediments to getting one. The ID law also applied to absentee voting, which is used by many elderly black voters in rural counties, who now must mail in copies of their photo IDs with their ballots. (The NAACP Legal Defense Fund is challenging the law in federal court as intentionally discriminatory.) They reformed campaign finance laws to weaken the political organizations that mobilize African American voters. They closed 31 DMV offices across the state, disproportionately affecting rural majority-black counties. In every county in which African Americans made up more than 75 percent of registered voters, the local DMV was slated for closure. (After a federal civil rights investigation, Alabama agreed to increase DMV service in rural African American counties, partially reversing the closures.) Since the US Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, allowing states like Alabama to change voting procedures without federal approval, Alabama has closed about 200 voting precincts, creating longer lines and sowing confusion among voters.
“[V]oting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that.” Ante, at 2. But the Court today terminates the remedy that proved to be best suited to block that discrimination. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) has worked to combat voting discrimination where other remedies had been tried and failed. Particularly effective is the VRA’s requirement of federal preclearance for all changes to voting laws in the regions of the country with the most aggravated records of rank discrimination against minority voting rights…
Volumes of evidence supported Congress’ de-termination that the prospect of retrogression was real. Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.
—Shelby County v. Holder (Ginsburg, J., dissenting.)