Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) condemns the partisan 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder that threatens four decades of gains in the protection of voting rights and rights to representation of citizens of color. Hundreds of thousands of civil rights activists put their lives on the line to win the expansion of the suffrage. We must not allow five Republican justices to overturn the right to vote, a civil right which underpins the defense of all other rights.
An almost exclusively white Republican Party is turning to undemocratic means to maintain political power. DSA views the fight to overturn this Supreme Court decision as part of a larger struggle to restore democracy to the United States, which includes placing strict limits on the role of money in politics, providing an expeditious path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and enacting a constitutional right to vote and to be fairly represented.
The court’s decision has already accelerated reactionary efforts to limit the franchise by means of restrictive voter ID laws, elimination of early voting, gerrymandering, and felony exclusion. Within hours of the decision’s announcement, Republican attorney generals in Texas, Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi stated that they would immediately institute restrictive voter ID laws and gerrymandering schemes, legislation that might have been overturned by the now-gutted enforcement procedures of the Voting Rights Act.
We reject Chief Justice Roberts’ claim that present realities no longer merit Section 4 “preclearance” procedures for changes in electoral laws in the affected states. Since Congress’s reauthorization of Section 4 in 2006 the Justice Department struck down thirty-six electoral law changes in these jurisdictions, including two restrictive voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas, as well as a state legislative redistricting plan in Texas that severely limited representation for Latino voters. These previously proscribed laws will now likely take effect.
Chief Justice Roberts’ majority decision claims that Section 4 “sharply departs” from the principles of states’ rights. The Republican majority on the court would return to the tradition of states’ rights trumping federal guarantees of civil rights. Despite the claim of conservative jurists to defer to legislative decisions, the Court overturned Congress’ commitment to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment, a core provision of Reconstruction’s second bill of rights. As Justice Ginsburg said in her stirring defense of Congress’s legislation, continuance of Section 4 “would facilitate completion of the impressive gains thus far made; and second, continuance would guard against backsliding.”
Backsliding on civil and political rights for minorities is indeed the goal of the Republican court majority and of many Republican governors and legislators even in northern states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. To rebuff these reactionary attempts to restrict democracy, DSA will join with the broad civil rights, labor, immigrant and progressive community to push Congress to revive Section 4 preclearance provisions by expanding them to all states where electoral rights have been threatened.
As DSA Honorary Chair Frances Fox Piven argues, American political elites have long worked to restrict access to the ballot for working class and poor people of all races through burdensome registration requirements and the refusal to hold elections on weekends or on a national holiday. Although electoral politics is only one form of civic participation and grassroots social activism also plays a central role in political life, we must preserve and expand democratic rights in the electoral arena as well. Only if the electorate is fully reflective of the nation’s economic and racial diversity can the people rebuff elite efforts at undemocratic rule.