The Voting Rights Act is having a bit of a moment in American society right now: The struggle for its passage was brought to the masses last year in Selma, and its 50th anniversary will be marked later this month, just two years after the law was effectively gutted by the Supreme Court.
In Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, journalist Ari Berman looks not just at the significance of this landmark civil rights law, but at what’s happened to voting right in America since Lyndon Johnson signed the VRA in 1965.
Rolling Stone recently spoke to Berman about his new book, the trauma of the 2000 Florida recount and what the gutting of the VRA means for the upcoming presidential election.
It feels like a major takeaway of your book is that, after this incredible fight by Civil Rights leaders in the Sixties and beyond, and all the efforts to challenge the VRA over the years, we’ve ended up, if not exactly back where we started, in a pretty bad place for voting rights in America. Is that right?
Yes. In many ways the voting rights situation now closely resembles the situation before the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. The right to vote is threatened across the country, and it’s very difficult now to challenge new voting restrictions – it’s a lengthy process before the courts, often before a hostile court, which in many ways was the situation before the Voting Rights Act was passed.
Now, obviously, we’ve made a huge amount of progress since then, so I don’t want to make it seem like 2015 is 1965, because clearly it isn’t. But if you look at many of the challenges that we’re facing today, these were things that the Voting Rights Act was supposed to eradicate.
The Voting Rights Act has been challenged throughout its history, but it’s only recently that those challenges have been successful. The VRA was re-authorized four times by Congress, and it was upheld four times by the courts as well – it was only recently, in 2013, when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, and now Congress won’t do anything to restore it. But both the courts and Congress have shifted to a far more negative stance toward the VRA.
The second thing I’ll say is that laws are being passed in states like Texas and North Carolina that either would have been blocked under the Voting Rights Act, or in fact were blocked under the Voting Rights Act and are now in effect. The Texas voter ID law was blocked under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 2012. If the Supreme Court had not gutted the Voting Rights Act, that law would never have been in effect.