By Reilley Flood, Campus Vote Project Communications Intern; Rebekah Caruthers, Fair Elections Center Vice President; Chauncy Whaley, Campus Vote Project Communications Intern; Dominique Mitchell, Campus Vote Project National HBCU Coordinator
This summer, we remember several important milestones in protecting our fundamental right to vote: The March on Washington, the Voting Rights Act, the 26th Amendment, and the Supreme Court’s decision in a case known as Shelby v. Holder. Below, we asked staff and students at Fair Elections Center and its Campus Vote Project to reflect on these momentous days throughout history, celebrating the strides we've made so far and acknowledging the progress yet to be made.
Shelby v Holder, June 25, 2013 –
Rebekah Caruthers, Vice President of Fair Elections Center
Shelby v. Holder reviewed two provisions in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). It considered whether or not certain jurisdictions in the United States needed to be precleared (section 5)—i.e. get permission—before making any changes to their voting laws, and how to determine which jurisdictions needed to be precleared before making changes to their voting laws (section 4b).
Prior to the VRA, certain jurisdictions (states and local governments) intentionally made it harder for Black voters to be able to vote through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, voter purges, reducing the number of polling locations in Black communities, intimidation practices, and the creation of additional hurdles that made it specifically harder for Black voters to exercise their right to vote. The VRA attempted to stop voting discrimination based upon race.
In Shelby, the Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional for the federal government to require states with a history of racial discrimination to use the 4b formula to determine if state voting laws needed to be reviewed by the Department of Justice (DOJ). The formula used historical discrimination data based upon race. Justice Antonin Scalia went as far as suggesting the preclearance formula was a “racial entitlement.” As if using real, historical data to stop racial discrimination is an entitlement for those being discriminated against! Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the dissent that ending preclearance was akin to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Jurisdictions that needed preclearance before Shelby are making changes to voting laws without DOJ review. In the first few years after Shelby, 13 states closed 1,688 polling locations with Texas, Arizona, and Georgia closing the largest number of polling sites. Since 2020, states have enacted stricter voter ID laws, criminalized providing food and drink to people standing in long voter lines, made it a felony to assist neighbors and family members with their ballot, made it harder for convicted felons to get their rights restored, intimidated community groups from registering people to vote, and have purged millions of voters off the voter rolls for being inactive. The impact has made it harder for racially ethnic communities, seniors, students, and returning citizens to exercise their right to vote.
The solution to the Supreme Court declaring the preclearance formula unconstitutional is for Congress to update the formula used to determine which jurisdictions need to be precleared. Unfortunately, Congress has failed to update the preclearance formula or further strengthen the Voting Rights Act in the ten years since Shelby.
26th Amendment, July 1, 1971 –
Reilley Flood, Communications Intern
During the 2016 election cycle, I was 17. I felt so helpless and powerless, like so many young people who are fully aware of what is going on, but not quite old enough to vote. My first time voting was in the 2018 Midterm Election, where I was able to participate in our democracy.
I have always been taught that voting at 18 is a part of growing up, but that wasn’t always the case. The 26th Amendment, which granted voting rights to 18-year-olds, was only passed in 1971. When I first learned this, I was shocked at how recently in our country’s history the amendment had been passed. We are not as removed from limitations on our voting rights as we think. My own mother is older than the age change.
The power of the youth vote is obvious – when young people use their voices, change happens. My generation is made up of innovative leaders that challenge the status quo–so it’s no wonder that we’re also seeing a growing movement to disenfranchise our vote. Despite this, young people have shattered voter turnout records in recent years. When I turned 18, I wanted to be a contributing part of society, and thanks to the 26th Amendment, I was able to do that through voting.
Voting Rights Act, August 6, 1965 –
Chauncy Whaley, Communications Intern
In 1995, thirty years after the passing of the Voting Right Act, I was ten years old. My mother was getting ready to go and vote in a local election, but not just any old election–an African American was running for sheriff in Jacksonville, Florida where we lived. I remember the excitement of her spirit that day casting her ballot and that night when Nat Glover became the first African American ever to be elected into this office locally and the first in the state of Florida since Reconstruction.
I remember telling my mom that I wanted to vote, and she reminded me that I wasn’t allowed to vote for eight more years. So I waited. When I turned 18, I got the chance to be one of the millions that had the opportunity to elect the first African American President of the United States. I have been called to jury duty. I have had the opportunity to lead prayer for an African American woman who sought out the US Senate seat for the State of Florida. The passage of the Voting Rights Act in August of 1965 made my current life a reality and forever changed the legacy my family and I will leave behind.
March on Washington, August 28, 1963 –
Dominique Mitchell, National HBCU Coordinator
On August 28, 2023, we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when organizers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin brought together a mass of civil rights activists, labor unionists, religious leaders, and believers to Washington, D.C. to advocate for the civil and economic rights of African Americans
60 years ago.
The concept of time can be sobering when we talk about movements and progress in the United States. Let’s break it down: life expectancy in the United States varies, but according to Harvard University research, we live about 76 years. Most of our leaders in Washington, D.C., and our state legislatures are around 60 years old. Some of them, like Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative Maxine Waters, and Representative Steve Cohen were involved in the same political protests we’re celebrating this summer. My own grandmother, Ruby, is 77 years old. In the span of her life, she went from being denied service at Woolworth’s in North Carolina to being part of the first group of professionals in an integrated workforce, sending her child to integrated schools, and seeing the US elect the first Black/bi-racial president. And yet, much of that progress is being reversed because we, as a nation, have failed future generations by not taking the initiative of preventing us from reverting to a society that overtly used violence and exploitation to terrorize those who were not White, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant.
It is wonderful to celebrate anniversaries – trust me, I just celebrated my first year of marriage – but within the celebration, there needs to be reflection, assessment, and plans of action. Did we live up to our expectations? Are we proud of the legacy we’ve created since 1963? How are the people who were alive then, acting and legislating now?
Let this anniversary be a moment to seek and build allyship, organize and mobilize with a purpose, and most of all, give thanks for the opportunity to stand up against injustice by our government. Time is of the essence.