You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

Supreme Court Guts Voting Rights Act, Sparking Fears of Rollback for Minorities Long After Jim Crow

Media Options

In a major blow for voting rights, the U.S. Supreme Court has invalidated an integral part of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, the crowning achievement of the 1960s civil rights movement. In a 5-to-4 decision, justices ruled Congress has used obsolete information in continuing to require nine states with a history of racial discrimination to obtain federal approval for changes to voting rules. In recent years, Democrats have accused Republicans at the state level of enacting measures including congressional redistricting and voter identification laws to suppress the vote of minority groups likely to support Democratic candidates. We get reaction from three guests: Rev. Jesse Jackson, veteran civil rights leader and founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition; Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund; and Ari Berman, a reporter who covers voting rights for The Nation. “This cuts at the heart of the whole idea of a broad American social fabric,” Rev. Jackson says. Berman adds that the challenge came before the high court out of “a determined movement by conservatives to gut the most important civil rights law in the past 50 years.”

Related Story

StoryJul 10, 2012Rep. John Lewis, Civil Rights Icon, on the Struggle to Win–and Now Protect–Voting Rights in U.S.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In a major blow for voting rights, the Supreme Court has gutted an integral part of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. The act was a crowning achievement of the civil rights movement and helped transform the South. On Tuesday, in a five-to-four decision, the justices ruled that Congress had used obsolete information in continuing to require nine states, mainly in the South, to obtain federal approval for voting rule changes affecting minority voters. The Voting Rights Act was challenged by Shelby County, Alabama, which argued the preclearance requirement has outlived its usefulness.

Congressman John Lewis of Georgia reacted to Tuesday’s ruling on MSNBC. He was nearly killed when he participated in the 1965 Bloody Sunday march to Selma, Alabama, to demand the right to vote.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I was disappointed, because I think what the court did today is stab the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its very heart. It is a major setback. We may not have people being beaten today. Maybe they’re not being denied the right to participate or to register to vote. They’re not being chased by police dogs or trampled by horses. But in the 11 states of the Old Confederacy, and even in some of the states outside of the South, there’s been a systematic, deliberate attempt to take us back to another period. And these men that voted to strip the Voting Rights Act of its power, they never stood in unmovable lines. They never had to pass a so-called literacy test. It took us almost a hundred years to get where we are today. So will it take another hundred years to fix it, to change it?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Congressman Lewis reacting to Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling on the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority, quote, “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.”

Meanwhile, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, quote, “The Voting Rights Act became one of the most consequential, efficacious, and amply justified exercises of federal legislative power in our Nation’s history.” President Barack Obama reacted to the ruling with disappointment and asked Congress to pass legislation, quote, “to ensure every American has equal access to the polls.”

In recent years, Democrats have accused Republicans at the state level of enacting measures intended to suppress the vote of minority groups likely to support Democratic candidates. These measures include congressional redistricting and voter identification laws. Just two hours after the ruling, Texas began advancing a voter ID law and redistricting map that were blocked last year for discriminating against African-American and Latino residents.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Chicago, where we’re joined by Reverend Jesse Jackson, civil rights leader, president and founder of Rainbow PUSH Coalition, and by Thomas Saenz, president of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. His organization submitted a brief in the Shelby case and brought the other major voting rights case the Supreme Court decided last week, in which it ruled that an Arizona law requiring proof of citizenship from residents as they register to vote is invalid because it violates the National Voter Registration Act. And here in New York, we’re joined by Ari Berman, who covers voting rights for The Nation magazine, his recent article headlined “What the Supreme Court Doesn’t Understand About the Voting Rights Act.”

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Reverend Jesse Jackson, let’s begin with you. Your reaction to the Supreme Court decision?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Well, first—good morning—a source of deep pain. My father came from World War II, had to sit behind lots of POWs on American military bases and did not have the right to vote. I’ve grown up with this all of my life. I marched in Selma, Alabama, for the right to vote; went to jail trying to get Mandela his right to vote. We’ve been fighting the struggle to democratize our nation and our nations for a long time, and so it hurt at that level. On the other hand, the shift from federal oversight to states’ rights abuses is a radical shift, and the impact will be devastating unless President Barack Obama, I think, moves quickly and goes to Congress, as President Johnson did, and speaks to the nation about the significance of the integrity of our democracy having been stripped on yesterday.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ari Berman, can you explain the significance of what happened and the importance, in particular, of Section 5 and Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act?

ARI BERMAN: Sure. Well, Section 5 is really the most important part of the Voting Rights Act. That’s what’s given the law its teeth historically, because it forced states with the worst history of voting discrimination to have to clear their changes with the federal government, and it shifted the burden of proof onto the discriminators as opposed to those who had been discriminated against for so many years. What Justice Roberts said is that the way that states are covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Section 4 is unconstitutional. So, right now Section 5 is a ghost. There are no states covered under Section 5. Congress would have to rewrite the law in some way that would satisfy the justices to actually give Section 5 some teeth again, because right now it really doesn’t exist.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to comments made by Justice Antonin Scalia during oral arguments for the case. He suggested certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act were a form of, quote, “racial entitlement.”

JUSTICE ANTONIN SCALIA: I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It’s been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Antonin Scalia. Thomas Saenz of the MALDEF, your response to what happened yesterday and to what Scalia said?

THOMAS SAENZ: Well, I think that the justice’s comments and, indeed, yesterday’s decision really demonstrate how out of touch the Supreme Court majority is with the reality of life in America today. The simple fact is that this very powerful tool to enforce voting rights against some very recalcitrant, egregious violators through history of the rights of minorities to vote is very important and vital today. We saw in 2012, through the season leading up to the election, that there were efforts in covered jurisdictions, and indeed in other jurisdictions, to restrict the vote, to impose voter ID requirements that would deter participation, that would prevent participation, of thousands and thousands of voters. This measure, that was basically disabled by the court yesterday, prevented many of those measures from taking effect. And even in the jurisdictions that are not covered by Section 5, they saw what happened in Section 5 jurisdictions, and it was a clear demonstration that those laws needed to be stopped because they were violative of voting rights. So this is a vital tool that’s been disabled because the court majority is simply out of touch with what’s going on in communities across the country.


AMY GOODMAN: Yes, Reverend Jackson?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Amy? May I hasten to say, it’s black and Latino, but not just that. With [inaudible] in ’65, blacks could not vote, but white women could not serve on juries in much of the South. That was eight-one on the Supreme Court. Eighteen-year-olds were serving in Vietnam; they could not vote. Students could not vote on campuses; they either had to vote absentee or go home to vote. You could not vote bilingual until 1975. So we democratized democracy. This cuts at the heart of the whole idea of a broadened American social fabric.

And what these states will do during that 25 years, from '65 to 1990, they used gerrymandering, as they're now doing in Texas to cut down Latino officials, or the case of Cleo Fields in Louisiana, they used gerrymandering, annexation and laws [inaudible]. All these schemes will now become fashionable again. It will take very expensive lawsuits to defeat them. That’s why I hope President Obama will take the lead, in fact, as President Johnson did ultimately, and go to the Congress and to the nation and make the case for the nation on our—protect the right to vote for all Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip of President Lyndon Johnson speaking just as he’s about to sign the Voting Rights Act in 1965. His comments are followed by remarks from Dr. Martin Luther King.

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: Today is a triumph for freedom, as huge as any victory that’s ever been won on any battlefield. This law covers many pages, but the heart of the act is plain. Wherever, by clear and objective standards, states and counties are using regulations or laws or tests to deny the right to vote, then they will be struck down. If it is clear that state officials still intend to discriminate, then federal examiners will be sent in to register all eligible voters. This good Congress, the 89th Congress, acted swiftly in passing this act. And I intend to act with equal dispatch in enforcing this act.

REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I think the greatest victory of this period was not in terms of an external factor or an external development, but it was something internal. The real victory was what this period did to the psyche of the black man. And the greatness of this period was that we armed ourselves with dignity and self-respect. The greatness of this period was that we straightened our backs up. And a man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip of Dr. Martin Luther King, and, before him, President Lyndon Johnson, handing him the pen he used to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s from the documentary King: A Filmed Record…From Montgomery to Memphis. I wanted to ask you, Reverend Jackson, where were you on that day?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Well, I was in Chicago by that time and just celebrating the greatest August 6, really, 1965. And what a joyful moment it was. Reminds me again of just how much—how underappreciated is Lyndon Baines Johnson. Only Lincoln stands as tall as Lyndon Johnson in this quest to make America America for all of its people. He does not get the credit he really deserves.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is the 50th anniversary—we’re coming up in August—of the March on Washington, so significant, Jesse Jackson and Thomas Saenz. I wanted to ask Thomas Saenz of MALDEF what this specifically means for the Latino community. If you can talk about the states that we’re referring to here?

THOMAS SAENZ: Well, for the Latino community, the two critical states, in particular, are Texas and Arizona, which are covered by Section 5. And, indeed, in this last round of redistricting, as you’ve heard and stated, the Texas Legislature adopted maps for Congress and for its state House that basically prevented Latinos from electing candidates of their choice. And it was through the intervention of Section 5 that that map was prevented from taking effect. Similarly, a voter ID provision that Texas sought to implement in 2012, that would have made it even more difficult to vote in that state for those without readily at hand the kind of limited documents required under that law, was barred from taking effect because of a lack of preclearance under the very provision that was essentially disabled yesterday by the Supreme Court. And in Arizona 10 years ago, in its redistricting process, Section 5 served to prevent the implementation of maps that would have, again, prevented the Latino community from electing candidates that they chose. So, this has been a critically important tool in ensuring that the rights to vote of Latinos across the country, but particularly in Texas and Arizona, have been protected and preserved.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ari Berman, how is it, could you explain, that this—the Voting Rights Act, which has been in place for almost five decades and was recently renewed for another 25 years—what accounts for this decision taking place now? And could you talk about, specifically, Chief Justice Roberts’ role in this ruling?

ARI BERMAN: Sure. Well, there’s really been a long war in the conservative movement against the Voting Rights Act. John Roberts, when he was a young lawyer in the Reagan Justice Department, led the fight against another part of the Voting Rights Act. He lost that fight. But it’s clear that when Roberts got on the court, this was going to be an issue that he wanted to deal with. He wanted to be able to undo what he couldn’t do in the 1980s.

And you look at inside the conservative movement today. There is a group called the Project on Fair Representation, which brought this case, which found the plaintiff, which paid for the lawyers. They are funded by the largest members in the conservative movement, by a group called Donors Trust, which receives money from the Koch brothers and so many other large conservative funders. That allowed the Project on Fair Representation and other conservative groups to have the resources to find these challenges, to bring them to the court, to get them before a receptive audience. We don’t know—if it wasn’t for this one group, the Project on Fair Representation, this challenge may never have even come to the court. So, really, this is not an accident. It’s really a determined movement by conservatives to gut the most important civil rights law in the last 50 years.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can you speak specifically—the group that you’re talking about—the role of Ed Blum?

ARI BERMAN: Ed Blum runs the Project on Fair Representation. He is a conservative who lost a seat for Congress in the 1990s. He believed he was the victim of unfair racial gerrymandering that was mandated by the Voting Rights Act, so he then devoted his life to basically lessening the use of race in public policy, as he said. He founded the Project on Fair Representation with the help of the American Enterprise Institute in 2005 to challenge a 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. He lost that battle overwhelmingly. Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act 390 to 33 in the House and 98 to zero in the Senate—margins that we just don’t see on anything today. And when Blum lost in Congress, he decided to go for the courts. And when John Roberts became chief justice, he knew he had an ideological ally on the court.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the exchange between Chief Justice John Roberts and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli. Roberts questions Verrilli on voter turnout statistics during the oral arguments.

CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS: Do you know which state has the worst ratio of white voter turnout to African-American voter turnout?


CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS: Massachusetts. Do you know what has the best?


CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS: Where African-American turnout actually exceeds white turnout? Mississippi.

SOLICITOR GENERAL DONALD VERRILLI JR.: Yes, Mr. Chief Justice, but Congress recognized that expressly in the findings when it reauthorized the act in 2006. It said that the first-generation problems had been largely dealt with, but there persisted significant—

CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS: Which state has the greatest disparity in registration between white and African American?


CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS: Massachusetts. Third is Mississippi, where, again, the African-American registration rate is higher than the white registration rate.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Chief Justice Roberts. Ari Berman?

ARI BERMAN: Well, number one, the chief justice is wrong in his use of statistics. But the second thing is it’s very misleading just to look at registration. You look at Mississippi versus Massachusetts. Massachusetts has an African-American governor, Deval Patrick. Mississippi has never elected an African-American candidate to any statewide office, despite having among, if not the largest African-American percentage of any state. So, it’s very misleading. What the Voting Rights Act did is it allowed people to register to vote. But then what happened, as the solicitor general said, a whole host of second- and third-generation barriers started coming out. And we’ve seen, through redistricting, through different laws, an attempt to stop that movement in the electorate.

And one of the big stories—I think the biggest story—in the South right now is the tension between demographic change and voter suppression. A third of the country lives in the South right now. One of the consequences of the Voting Rights Act was that it turned the South from Democratic to Republican. It’s shifting back now Democratic. If you look at Barack Obama, he won three states of the Old Confederacy. Republicans are aware of that. That’s why they’ve redistricted so aggressively since the 2010 election, and that’s why states like North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, etc., are rushing to pass new voting restrictions now. And without Section 5, it’s going to be open season in the South to try to pass new laws that can thwart the impact of demographic changes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Reverend Jesse Jackson, I’d like to ask you what you think the Obama administration can do now? The administration has been extremely critical of the Supreme Court ruling. What kind of steps can the administration now take?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: I didn’t hear you.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sorry. Reverend Jackson, I’m asking you what steps the Obama administration can now take in light of this ruling? They’ve been very critical.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: This is the time to convene this bipartisan meeting of leadership in the White House. He can do that, number one. The next step, of course, is for the president to go to the Congress, as President Johnson did, and make his case to the Congress and to the nation, because there is a—seems to me to be a kind of a period here where people, like some of the Republicans, are a bit caught off-guard by the devastating impact and the reaction to this. This is the time for him to move rather immediately to the Congress and to the American public. If there ever were a time to make a case to the American public about the advantages of a broad-based democracy, it is now. When Mr. Roberts says we’ve done well over these years—well, you know, just watch the spine-tingling game between the Spurs and the Miami Heat. But this integrity was protected by referees. Referees and oversighters matter. If you remove oversight, all you get what you’re getting in Texas already. I was in South Carolina last week. They sent back $11 billion of Medicaid money. They didn’t want federal intervention. And sent back a billion dollars of education money. This Confederate ideology is very—tea party, is 150 years old. The ideology of turning back the clock and removing federal intervention is their preoccupation.

AMY GOODMAN: In a victory for voting rights, just last week the Supreme Court struck down an Arizona law that requires people to provide proof of citizenship when they complete their voter registration form. In his majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, quote, “We conclude that the fairest reading of the statute is that a state-imposed requirement of evidence of citizenship not required by the Federal Form is 'inconsistent with' the [National Voting Rights Act’s] mandate that States 'accept and use' the Federal Form.” Thomas Saenz, you’re the president of MALDEF, which brought the challenge to the court. Can you talk about this case and how it relates to the taking down of the Voting Rights Act?

THOMAS SAENZ: Well, I think that that case indicates that Congress does have the power and authority under the Constitution to step in and prevent specific practices, like requiring documentary proof of citizenship before being allowed to register, as Arizona attempted to do. The motor voter law, also better known as the National Voter Registration Act, clearly establishes one form to register to vote in federal elections. That form requires you to sign, under penalty of perjury, a claim—stating that you are a citizen. It does not require you to come forward with any document to prove your citizenship. Arizona tried to add that additional requirement to register in its state, and the Supreme Court majority, seven to two, concluded that the NVRA did not permit that.

What that case demonstrates is that Congress can act, needs to act to prevent the most egregious attempts to limit voting rights. It can act, more specifically in reaction to yesterday’s decision, to include that certain practices are covered by a preclearance mechanism. Certain jurisdictions, again, are covered by a preclearance mechanism. But it can also affirmatively act and say, “We are going to establish across the country a uniform voter registration procedure,” as it did with the motor voter law, as the Supreme Court concluded a week ago.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to wrap up by moving to another subject, Reverend Jesse Jackson. It’s the health of former South African President Nelson Mandela. He’s in critical condition. He’s 94 years old, suffering from a lung infection. Can you give us final words today about Mandela, a man you certainly knew well?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Well, I talked with his grandson yesterday. He is gravely ill. But death cannot take from us what Mandela has already given to us, which will last beyond his death. His strength—he tried to fight to end apartheid legislatively, with litigation, as a militarist. Finally, he out-suffered the system. He not only is an historical figure, but as a transformative, he came up with the power to retaliate: He chose reconciliation and reconstruction. So his stature in the world community will outlast whatever season he’s in now of grave illness and of death. We pray for his continued recovery. He is not dead yet. We pray for him and for his family during this hour of challenge.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Jesse Jackson; Thomas Saenz of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund; and Ari Berman of The Nation, we thank you all for being with us.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to the Texas state House, where it was high drama into the early hours around abortion rights. Stay with us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Next story from this daily show

Texas Showdown: Anti-Abortion Bill Fails After Protesters Fill Capitol to Cheer Marathon Filibuster

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation