Last Thursday marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act into law. With the Act, African-Americans were finally granted protections to exercise the voting freedoms granted to them with the passing of the 15th Amendment in 1870. The 1965 voting rights hammer landed heaviest on local election officials who had been enforcing a number of discriminatory measures — literacy tests, poll taxes, all the violence depicted in Ava DuVernay's movie Selma — to keep black people from voting.
More recently, the actual political power of black elected officials throughout the South has waned considerably, thanks to an onslaught of new local laws that have made it more difficult for people of color to vote. From a recent New York Times editorial:
Today there are no poll taxes or literacy tests. Instead there are strict and unnecessary voter-identification requirements, or cutbacks to early voting and same-day registration — all of which are known to disproportionately burden black voters.
The current voting-rights malaise was triggered mainly by two key events:
- The 2010 elections, when a host of state legislatures and governors' offices flipped to Republican control and immediately began passing laws to restrict voting.
- The 2013 Shelby v. Holder U.S. Supreme Court decision, which defused a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that had been used to detect racial discrimination in election administration before it happened.