Last week, the Supreme Court justices said in 5-4 vote that the VRA Congress most recently renewed in 2006 relies on 40-year-old data that does not reflect racial progress and changes in U.S. society.
The court did not strike down the advance approval requirement of the law that has been used, mainly in the South, to open up polling places to minority voters in the nearly half century since it was first enacted in 1965. But the justices did say lawmakers must update the formula for determining which parts of the country must seek Washington’s approval, in advance, for election changes.
“The decision is a setback, a tremendous setback, for those that truly believe in civil rights legislation,” said Adam Dickson, chairman of the political action committee for the local branch of the NAACP.
Ralph Davis, vice president of the local NAACP branch and vice president of the NAACP East Tennessee region, said Section 4 of the law, the part that sets the formula for preclearance, was the most important part of the law.
“That’s what we are upset about,” Davis said. “The Section 4 of the VRA was really a safeguard to ensure states are fair.”
Davis did think things would revert to 1965 when violence, intimidation, literacy tests and the like were used to disenfranchise voters, but he thought the law as it was written was working and should have remained untouched.
“I didn’t see any reason to change it,” he said.
Back when the VRA was passed, there was a problem ensuring all Americans of legal voting age had access to the polls in certain states. The VRA set up a formula in Section 4 of the act that determined whether states must seek approval to change voting procedures or laws if there was a “test or device” to cast a ballot, how many voters were registered and who participated.
Tennessee was not one of these states. Mississippi was. In that state today, Dickson said, there are more registered black voters than there are registered white voters. Conversely, there are more registered white voters in Massachusetts than there are registered black voters, where the VRA was not enforced.
These statistics were used as evidence by the Supreme Court that the VRA formula needed to be changed, Dickson noted.
But Dickson said it also was important to note that there has not been a black person elected in Mississippi since Reconstruction, while Massachusetts voters have had several black elected officials.
He said today the question should be “What is the role of the VRA in 2013?”
Dickson agreed the formula for deciding which states needed preclearance before implementing new voting procedures needed changed but did not think Congress would agree on a new formula, though he did say efforts were likely underway to encourage Congress to act.
“I’m sure the NAACP is very much working on the national level to get Congress to move,” he said.
“We’re not going to give up on it,” Davis said.