Study: Curbing Voting Rights Act could reverse gains

Voting Rights Act improves black political representation in city council districts, a new study shows

A South Carolina woman rallies in support of a key section of the Voting Rights Act.
Richard Ellis/Getty Images

The Supreme Court's decision to restrict the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 legislation that prohibits discrimination against voters on the basis of race or color, could harm African-American political representation at the city-council level, a new study says.

The study found that municipalities with the strongest gains in black political representation were those protected by a provision of the Voting Rights Act that was invalidated by the Supreme Court in June.

Some experts say the new study shows that the court's decision could reverse the gains that black voters have made as a result of the act or at least impede further progress. 

The study, to be published this month in the upcoming issue of The Journal of Politics, is among the first on the act's effectiveness on black political representation, according to researchers at Rice University, Ohio University and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Its conclusion is clear: The Voting Rights Act explains much of the electoral success of black candidates in city elections — and those gains could be at risk.

The landmark Voter Rights Act was meant to increase the number of minority voters and political candidates involved in the U.S. political process. Section 5 of the law required states and municipalities with a history of discriminatory voting practices to obtain federal government approval — known as preclearance — before implementing any change that would affect voting.

In the study, titled "Are We There Yet? The Voting Rights Act and Black Representation on City Councils," researchers examined the impact of Section 5, using data from about 4,000 districts from 1981 through 2006.

They determined that African-Americans made their steepest political gains in areas protected by the Voting Rights Act.

In 1981 only 40 percent of cities covered by Section 5 had elected a black council member — but by 1991, that number had jumped to 74 percent. Gains in cities not covered by Section 5 came at a much slower pace, seeing only a 6 percent improvement in political representation during those 10 years.

The biggest improvements in black city council representation occurred in cities covered by Section 5 where the black population is less than 20 percent, suggesting the act is "most important in places where black population size cannot, by itself, ensure black representation," the report said.

"Our research shows pretty strongly that Section 5 continues to matter, because it ensures that districts are more efficacious in their ability to represent African-Americans on city councils," said Melissa Marschall, a professor of political science at Rice University and a study co-author.

She said that the Supreme Court decision to strike down Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act — which renders Section 5 unenforceable — will harm black political participation and that the study supports efforts to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.

"Voter disenfranchisement remains a problem today. The tendency seems to be to try and discourage voting participation rather than encourage it. We don't really see any laws that are aimed at enhancing participation," she told Al Jazeera.

The Supreme Court held in Shelby Country v. Holder that although Section 4(b) was necessary when it was enacted, it is no longer needed because it does not speak to current conditions.

But Marschall said that without the preclearance requirements, some counties are enacting laws that have the effect of disenfranchising minority voters.

She pointed to Texas voter-ID laws as an example. A voter-ID law requires individuals to provide a form of identification in order to vote or receive a ballot. At least 34 states have laws requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls. Opponents of voter-ID laws contend that they make it harder for millions of Americans to vote.

It is not just African-Americans who are being disenfranchised by these new rules, according to Marschall. "The elderly and the poor populations are also affected. Those with fewer resources are being impacted most," she said, because they may not have access to new voter guidelines or be unable to obtain the required documents.

Jotaka L. Eaddy, senior director of voting rights for the NAACP, told Al Jazeera that the section of the act invalidated by the Supreme Court is crucial to black political participation. It "is the heart of the Voting Rights Act because it is the only protection that stops discriminatory laws before they impact citizens," Eaddy said.

"If there is fear that your voice will not be heard or represented in your district, state or country," Eaddy said, "there is a natural loss of faith in democracy. We have to continue to do everything in our power to make sure that an already marginalized group is not increasingly ostracized from the democratic process."

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