In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a devastating blow to the 1965 Voting Rights Act with the Shelby County v. Holder ruling. The court found a centerpiece section of the act to be unconstitutional, which now makes it a lot easier for states to merrily tweak election procedures without federal preclearance. And many new state voting restrictions exist without the act’s full protection. With the third anniversary of this ruling, America sits in the unique position of observing its hellish effects on primary season while wondering how drastically it will affect the general election. What impact will we see upon affected communities, and is there anything citizens can do to quell the damage?
In search of answers, we spoke with Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., whose community activism knows few parallels. You may know Yearwood for his post-Hurricane Katrina work for survivors’ rights through the Gulf Coast Renewal campaign. He’s recognized by the White House as a Champion in Change. He founded the nonpartisan Hip Hop Caucus in 2004 and has partnered with many artists (including P. Diddy, T.I., and Vic Mensa) on community action issues including environmental justice, cannabis policy, and the Black Lives Matter movement. The organization’s Respect My Vote! campaign aims to re-strengthen the Voting Rights Act.
The Danger Of A Weakened Act On Election Season
Yearwood lists a number of concerns about Shelby v. Holder‘s effect on voting rights and voting discrimination. For example, states can now change polling locations without reason. This discourages voting through numerous access barriers, and communities can’t complain until after an election. Yearwood knows we’ve already seen damage during primary season and will see more in November. In Arizona, fewer polling booths caused long lines in many locations. New York and Arizona have seen reduced voting rolls, and Texas has tweaked its voter ID process in a way that Yearwood believes “raises suspicion.” To illustrate exactly what’s going on in the Lone Star State, just consider this — one can secure a voter ID by using a gun permit as a form of ID. But a student ID? That doesn’t fly.
Texas’ voter ID restrictions certainly affect millennials. Yearwood believes many new laws also target “elderly, disabled, and communities of color” by inhibiting access in similar ways. As Yearwood points out, the virtual dismantling of the Voting Rights Act allows “states which have historically — have some really bad history in regards to voting rights and voter suppression — it allows them to be in the position where they can change the law.” So, those affected by changes in election procedures will suffer. People and entire communities can start to feel like their voice means nothing. In short order, democracy itself gets shut down by way of a vanishing electorate.