Shelby County v. Holder’s Biggest and Most Harmful Impact May Be on Our Nation’s Smallest Towns

U.S. Supreme Court
The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Photo by Mark Thomas

When we think of Shelby County v. Holder, we tend to think big, and for good reason. The Court’s decision led to some of the largest changes to voting rights we have seen in the past 50 years. 

But one of the most devastating consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder is the impact that the ruling has had and will continue to have on small communities. Voting changes at the local level, which once required preclearance by the Department of Justice or a federal court under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, now often go unnoticed and unchallenged – even though these changes could also drastically harm voters’ ability to access to the ballot.

Take, for example, Augusta-Richmond County, Georgia. In 2011, prior to the Shelby County decision, the county tried to move its local elections from November to July. Yet because of Georgia’s history of voting rights violations, the law was sent to the Department of Justice prior to enactment. After reviewing the proposal, the DOJ squarely rejected the bill because of its disproportionate effect on black voters.

On June 29, 2013, just four days after the decision in Shelby County, local newspapers reported that the voting law was back under consideration. And, sure enough, in early 2014 the county’s board of elections moved local elections from November to July after holding meetings that were closed to the public to discuss the change.

While this proposal had previously been blocked from taking effect, it sailed through the courts after Shelby County relieved Georgia of the preclearance requirements of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. When the ACLU filed suit, a federal judge dismissed the charges less than a month after the case began.

This is not the first time Southern legislators have tried to change the date of an election for political gain. In 1898, at the height of Jim Crow, North Carolina passed an eerily similar law moving its election date from November to August, when African Americans were less likely to vote. Now, without Section 5 in place, legislators can take similar sorts of action to stack the legislatures at a cost to minority voters.

The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund is keeping a running list of voting changes that have been made since the 2013 decision, many of which have gone into effect and will impact local elections and politics in years to come. The only recourse to challenge these laws is through litigation under the Voting Rights Act, but litigation is time-consuming and expensive, and it places a heavy burden on victims of discrimination and the few civil rights groups trained to take on these cases.

Our Voting Rights Institute, which is a project of Campaign Legal Center, American Constitution Society and Georgetown Law, is working to prepare the next generation of attorneys, experts and activists to preserve our democracy and protect the ability of all Americans to vote. But we’re also aiming to respond to queries from voters in local jurisdictions who need help challenging discriminatory voting measures. 

The VRI was able to help last December when the Waller County Commissioners’ Court in Texas voted to drastically reduce the number of early voting locations from eight to two before the March 2016 presidential primary. The new plan eliminated both early voting locations in the only precinct in the county that was majority people of color – one in the African American city of Prairie View, and another on the campus of Prairie View A&M University, a historically black university.  These changes would have previously had to be precleared by the Department of Justice or reviewed by a federal court in Washington, D.C., before they could go into effect.

Waller County voters contacted the Voting Rights Institute on December 22 and asked it to intervene. That very same day we wrote a letter to Waller County officials advising them that their actions likely violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. County officials met the next day and decided to increase the number of early voting locations to six, including one in the City of Prairie View within walking distance of the historically black university’s campus.

The VRI was fortunate in the case of Waller County to be contacted by passionate advocates on the ground committed to protecting the fundamental right to vote. However, not every community may be as vigilant.

The only way to ensure that voting rights are protected in large and small jurisdictions alike is for Congress to restore the coverage formula of the Voting Rights Act.

There are currently two bipartisan bills before Congress that would do just that, and either bill would be a tremendous improvement in protecting the right to vote in a post-Shelby County world.

Congress should act without delay to ensure that 2016 does not bear witness to the first presidential election in more than 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. Anything less threatens the ability of all voters to participate fully in our democracy.

This Saturday marks the three-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. This provision required the federal government to preclear any voting changes in parts of the country that have a history of discrimination in voting. This blog is part of a week-long series of the devastating impact of the Supreme Court’s decision on the right to vote.