Supreme Court Guts Voting Rights Protection for Millions of Black and Latino People

July 7, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |


In 1965, the U.S. passed into law the Voting Rights Act, which removed some overt barriers to Black people exercising their right to vote. These blatant barriers—like requiring people to pass literacy tests or pay poll taxes before they could get to vote—had been in place in America for many decades, especially in the South through 100 years of Jim Crow segregation and KKK terror. This was so even though the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, passed after the Civil War, supposedly guarantees that no U.S. citizen can be denied the right to vote by the federal or a state government because of their “race, color, or conditions of previous servitude.”

Now the U.S. Supreme Court, in a ruling announced on June 26, has basically gutted the Voting Rights Act—opening the door wide to all kinds of laws and actions by states and various jurisdictions that suppress the voting rights of Black, Latino, and other oppressed people. This will affect many millions of people quickly and directly. In fact, just hours after the ruling, the Texas Attorney General announced that his state’s voter ID law “will take effect immediately.” The law, which requires that people produce valid IDs recognized by the state before they can vote, had been blocked by a federal court because of the Voting Rights Act for discriminating against Blacks and Latinos.

The heart of the Voting Rights Act—what gave it its enforcement power until this Supreme Court ruling—is Section 5, which requires certain states and other jurisdictions to get pre-clearance from the federal government or court for any changes in laws or procedures relating to voting. This had prevented many schemes to limit the voting of Black and other oppressed people from going into effect up to this point. In addition to laws requiring photo IDs like the one in Texas, these schemes include actions like redrawing electoral district maps to the disadvantage of Black and Latino residents (known as gerrymandering).

The Supreme Court ruling did not invalidate Section 5 up front, but it did declare as unconstitutional Section 4—which specifies how states and other jurisdictions would be covered by the pre-clearance requirement. Under Section 4, nine entire states, mainly former slave states in the South, with the worst record of voter discrimination when the law went into effect in 1965—Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia—as well as scores of counties and other jurisdictions in other states, were under the pre-clearance requirement.

The Supreme Court’s decision to throw out Section 4 means that there are now no states or jurisdictions covered by the Section 5 pre-clearance requirement. That is why the Supreme Court ruling basically amounts to overturning the Voting Rights Act itself. The Court said Congress could come up with a new formula for coverage—but the widespread opinion among legal experts is that Congress is very unlikely to do this.

Representing the five-member majority in the Court’s decision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “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.” Roberts (and powerful sections of the ruling class) claim that voting discrimination against and disenfranchisement of Black and other people of color are things of the past and not part of “current conditions”—that this is now a so-called color-blind and post-racial society. During oral arguments in the case in February, Antonin Scalia, one of the five-member majority on the Court, even declared that the Voting Rights Act amounted to “racial entitlement.”

But the reality is that laws and measures in various forms that in effect suppress Black, Latino, and other minority votes are proliferating all over the country—in Texas and other states covered by the Voting Rights Act as well as across the country. For example, over 30 states have considered laws that require people to show a government-issued ID before they can vote (see “Voter Suppression in America” at Those behind the voting suppression moves don’t come out and say they want to restrict the voting of Black and other oppressed people. These are not racist measures, they claim, but are targeting things like “voter fraud” and trying to ensure the “integrity of elections.”

There are also millions of people who are disenfranchised because of laws in various states that deprive people of the right to vote if they have a criminal conviction—even after they are out of prison. Again, the claim is that these criminal disenfranchisement laws are “color-blind.” But because Black and Latino people are unjustly targeted by laws and the police, leading to a much larger percentage of Black and Latino people in prisons and the whole “criminal justice system” compared to whites, the criminal disenfranchisement laws in actual effect target those groups—leading to the situation where, for example, 13 percent of all African-American men have lost their right to vote.

Roberts’ claim that the racist voting laws targeted by the Voting Rights Act are no longer part of “current conditions” echoes the fact that poll taxes, literacy requirements, and other vote restriction measures in the Jim Crow era also didn’t specifically name Black people as targets. But the clear and intended effect of those measures was the suppression of Black voting. In the context of the horrific oppression of Black people in this country until the 1960s—enforced by racist police, courts, and laws and lynch mobs—one of the main forms that this oppression took was denying Black people even the right to vote.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was not some magnanimous gesture to benefit Black people by President Lyndon Johnson and other “enlightened” forces in the power structure. Black people in the Jim Crow South—joined by others—fought with determination and courage for the right to vote, and some even lost their lives in this fight. This hard-fought struggle—as part of the larger civil rights movement, the Black liberation struggle, and the overall upsurge of the times, forced the ruling class of this country into a concession in the form of the Voting Rights Act.

And now, with the vicious ruling on the Voting Rights Act (along with the ruling on affirmative action—see “Supreme Court Tightens Noose Around Affirmative Action”), the “highest court of the land” has ended even the pretense of continuing the legacy of the civil rights movement. This is an ugly, forceful re-assertion of white supremacy, which is so foundational to this country and integral to the way this system continues to operate.

The reality is that no serious social or political change has ever been, or ever will be, achieved through voting and the electoral process under this system. Voting and the whole process of elections serve to draw people into, and act within, the killing confines of the system, the dictatorship of the capitalist-imperialist class—and even to endorse the brutal exploitation, wars, assassinations and other crimes that the rulers carry out all over the world. But when that right to vote is under such heavy assault, as it is today for Black and other oppressed people, this must be decisively opposed and fought against—because those assaults are part of the continuation and even intensification of the overall oppression. (For more, see Bob Avakian’s discussion of the right to vote vs. exercising that right, in the film BA Speaks: REVOLUTION—NOTHING LESS! Bob Avakian Live, in particular disc 2 of the DVD, chapter titled “The Election Hustle: ‘If They Draw You in, They Win.’”)

In his work “Three Strikes...” Bob Avakian says:

The book by Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has shined a bright and much needed light on the reality of profound injustices at the very core of this country.

And this brings me back to a very basic point:

This system, in this country, in the whole history of its treatment of Black people, what has it been?

First, Slavery... Then, Jim Crow—segregation and Ku Klux Klan terror... And now, The New Jim Crow—police brutality and murder, wholesale criminalization and incarceration, and legalized discrimination yet again.

That’s it for this system: Three strikes and you’re out!

The utterly reactionary ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court against the basic right of Black and other oppressed people to vote brings home yet again: this system in power today is totally illegitimate and profoundly against the real interests of the people.


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