Legacy of the Voting Rights Act – New Challenges and Possibilities

Democratic members of Congress hosting a press conference calling for support of the For the People Act, 2021 (Public Domain)

In 2013, a landmark Supreme Court decision altered a significant segment of the VRA. Shelby County v. Holder determined that Section 4b of the VRA – the coverage formula that determines how preclearance of voting districts is handled – was unconstitutional. The argument for the decision was that Section 4b’s formula was part of a larger law that was over four decades old, and as such was no longer “responsive to current needs,” and was an unnecessary “burden” on the sovereignty of the fifty states. Although Section 5 was not struck down in the decision, the unconstitutionality of Section 4b now rendered the former unenforceable in any legal actions regarding voting affairs. By removing the coverage formula from the VRA, civil rights organizations and elected officials asserted that voter suppression, particularly against racial and linguistic minorities, would take place with greater ease and frequency in subsequent elections. As such, the decision became a focal point for civil rights leaders and politicians in their calls for election reform.

Over the eight years following the decision, several bills were proposed by elected officials in Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike. The two most recent proposed bills were the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. The For the People Act, otherwise known as H.R. 1, would have enacted a vast series of voting rights expansions, altered campaign finance rules, eliminated gerrymandering along partisan lines, and would introduce a new collection of ethics rules for elected officials. The bill was passed in the House of Representatives in March 2021, with near-universal support by the Democrats and opposition by the Republicans. It was eventually blocked by the Republican-held Senate through a filibuster, where the bill was unable to get a supermajority vote to override the block. Meanwhile, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act proposed a new coverage formula for Section 5 of the VRA. Much like H.R. 1, the bill passed the House of Representatives along partisan lines, but has since been able to pass through the Senate filibuster. While the future of these two bills remains uncertain, the ongoing debate over the future of American voting rights is consistently complex, and equally contentious.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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