Hahrie Han and Eric Smith discuss the Voting Rights Act

The premise of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was simple: uphold the promise of the 15th Amendment. Section 1 was uncomplicated: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the act followed decades of voter suppression and the disenfranchisement of African Americans, especially in the Deep South. A key feature forced jurisdictions with a history of voter disenfranchisement to seek “preclearance” from the federal government before changing any election laws. It was expected to usher in a durable new era of democracy that would allow the country to turn the page on an ugly chapter of history. “The Voting Rights Act is a unique piece of legislation because it recognizes systematic voter suppression of entire groups of people, not just individuals,” said George Lipsitz, a UC Santa Barbara professor of Black Studies

An Act Under Attack

Today, as we approach the 53rdanniversary (Aug. 6) of Johnson signing the act, UCSB scholars argue that it’s been largely eviscerated by the Supreme Court. The deepest cut, they said, was Shelby County v. Holder (2013), in which the court deemed the act’s coverage formula — the way it determines which jurisdictions are subject to its special provisions — unconstitutional. Without a coverage formula the act’s chief enforcement provision is toothless.

“By gutting key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the Holder decision significantly limited the ability of federal courts to regulate discriminatory practices in the states,” said Hahrie Han, the Anton Vonk Professor of Environmental Politics in the Department of Political Science.

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