Did the Voting Rights Act Affect the Election?

As the United States picks apart the outcome of election night, looking for something that might explain a shocking result, one question is coming up repeatedly: What influence did Shelby County v. Holder, the notorious 2013 Supreme Court case that gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, have on voter turnout?

We’ll probably never have a hard answer to that, because we don’t know how many people were kept away from the polls by restrictive voting laws, let alone how many of them had voted, but there are some troubling trends when looking at turnout, candidate support and changes under Holder that are definitely worth a closer look.

First, a quick primer: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed to combat systemic voter suppression tactics used in the United States to keep people of color, especially Black Americans, away from the polls once they were offered the legal right to vote. Such measures included tactics like poll taxes, literacy tests, “whites only” primaries and arcane voting laws.

One of the provisions of the VRA was preclearance, in which regions with a history of abridging voting rights were required to run potential changes to voting laws and policies by the Department of Justice. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that preclearance was unconstitutional, and that, moreover, “the country has changed,” and these laws were outdated.

It turns out that the Supreme Court was wrong. Since 2014, 14 states have enacted tougher voting laws, including states that had been subject to preclearance; some barely let the ink dry on Holder before passing voter ID laws, shortening early voting, and closing or moving polling places.

President Obama won several of the states on that list in 2012, and Secretary Clinton lost them in 2016.

Is it as simple as changes to the Voting Rights Act? No, but it’s notable that even before Election Day, Black turnout was down in many Southern states that had once been under the DOJ’s eagle eye — and the North Carolina GOP, for one, was bragging about it.

In Wisconsin, a state Trump won by a sliver, hundreds of thousands of people were unable to vote because of a tough voter ID law, and voter turnout was markedly down post-Holder. While the state wasn’t subject to preclearance historically, the trend there is mirrored in other states that were.

Sometimes people couldn’t even get to the polls to be rejected. Nearly 900 polling places across America, most in low-income communities of color, closed after 2013.

In many states, it is easier to buy a gun than to vote. That’s due in part to the shifts in policy surrounding the Voting Rights Act, made in the belief that the racist status quo that fed voter suppression pre-1965 had somehow evaporated. It’s painfully clear now that this isn’t the case, and voting rights advocates warned that the United States could experience a rough election in response to these policy shifts. Their predictions, unfortunately, came true, and highlighted the fact that even if we’ll never be able to tell whether the VRA was the deciding factor in the election, it is manifestly unjust to allow laws that bar people from exercising their right to vote.

This is compounded by felon disenfranchisement, which deprives millions of people of the right to vote on the basis of being incarcerated or having a felony history, sometimes even after they have served their time and completed parole. Given the racialized nature of the justice system, this is an issue that disproportionately affects people of color, and many of the states with the toughest laws happen to be among those that were once subject to preclearance.

Photo credit: liz west

101 comments

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill1 years ago

There really isn't much problems with voting. Picture ids are easily obtained from the DMV for a very nominal fee. That way we know that the elections are accurate.

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Marie W
Marie W1 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld1 years ago

Margaret,
The claims of voter suppression and voter fraud are both real. Which affects the greater number of votes may never be known. These are games played by both parties to gain an unfair advantage in elections. Previously, the major offenses were vote buying, absentee fraud, and the infamous "cemetery vote." Recently, one party strove to register as many people as possible, legal or not. The other party countered by suppressing all these voters, not just the illegals. Depending on the area (and judges), sometimes one party succeeded, other times, it was the other. We really need a non-partisan voting commission to oversee both registration and voting. There is nothing inherently wrong with voter ID, as long as it is easily accessible. Most states allow multiple types of ID, which show legal residence. Everyone should be allowed one vote. No more and no less.

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NitaNoMail L.
Nita L1 years ago

I agree with the very strong possiblity that voter suppression had a great deal to do with the outcome of the election. We seem to have gone back in time to the equivalent of the poll tax.

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Veerle D.
Veerle D1 years ago

@Margaret Goodman : so you register to vote, but you're not registered. Looks like the registration system had some hickups then? And this only for black college students? Isn't that reason enough to say this election is messed up (not to say tampered with) ?
A legal citizen who can't get an ID? Again very strange to me. An Id = an identity card here, a driver's licence is not sufficient as an ID.

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Margaret Goodman
Margaret G1 years ago

My precinct in Pennsylvania includes Cheyney University, a historically black college. Some (about 30% is my guess) students came in with their voter registration verifications in hand, but, for some reason (?!) they were not listed in the precinct books as having been registered. Fortunately the precinct had a very fair judge who did her best to ensure that the students could vote.

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Margaret Goodman
Margaret G1 years ago

Paul B. also wrote, " ... Besides the number of legal citizens who can't get ID, for whatever valid reason, is far less than the number who have cast illegal votes. ... " Paul, what is your evidence?

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Margaret Goodman
Margaret G1 years ago

Paul B. wrote, "Anyone can get ID ... "

Oh really??? When my husband's wallet was stolen, he had a very difficult time obtaining ID, namely another drivers license, and he is middle class white with a birth certificate. The process would be daunting for someone with limited resources,

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Veerle D.
Veerle D1 years ago

The more I read about the US presidential elections and the US laws the more I think : US, democratic and the land of the free? I'm glad now that we have a mandatory vote here like I see also in Australia. Votes can be bought anytime, but it's worse when voting is not mandatory. You just can't 'buy' everyone so the effect will be evened out more.
As for Trump protesting even before the fact that the elections would be rigged : indeed but it was him preparing for it (as 'thou protesteth too much')...

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