Conservatives have tried to repeal the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the civil rights movement’s finest victory, for over 60 years. As an American voting rights expert, I think their long strategy is paying well.
The 2013 Shelby County v. Holder U.S. Supreme Court ruling looked to kill the Voting Rights Act. In that instance, the court overturned a Voting Rights Act provision that oversaw elections in disenfranchised regions. Merrill v. Milligan, a Supreme Court decision, might undermine the legislation after Shelby.
Conservative legal strategists want the court to rule that Alabama, where African Americans make up 25% of the population, live in concentrated and segregated communities, and have only one majority-Black voting district out of seven state districts, should not consider race when drawing district boundaries.
Minority voting rights were challenged throughout time. The Shelby and Merrill cases complete a decades-long conservative legal campaign to reverse the civil rights movement’s political victories.
The 1960s civil and voting rights measures are seen as a victory over racism. Rights revolutions increased intolerance.
The Voting Rights Act outlawed literacy tests and grandfather clauses that excused white people from the same standards that prevented Black people from voting. It also mandated federal oversight of local Southern elections and prohibited electoral reforms without Washington’s consent.
Following 1965, African Americans voted in large numbers and elected a record number of Black leaders, causing a complexion revolution in Southern politics. The VRA worked so effectively that white Democrats fled in historic numbers.
This Republican majority exploited worries of an interracial democracy while Washington preserved Black voting rights. Conservatives linked minority rights to white persecution to make the South Republican. Conservative political consultant and GOP strategist Lee Atwater saw Republicans using these worries in 1981. Defended:
‘Delay civil rights enforcement’
The Voting Rights Act revolution was undone by more than Southerners. Nixon’s promise to Southerners not to enforce civil rights started this trend. Nixon vowed to “retard civil rights enforcement” in a private meeting with segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond.
By the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan exploited white people’s rising dread of African American political power. According to voting rights scholar Jesse Rhodes, Reagan reorganized the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the Supreme Court using presidential and congressional power.
Goal? Undermining Washington’s Voting Rights Act enforcement without looking racist. The Reagan administration linked minority voting rights to reverse discrimination. They said minority-favored legislation disadvantaged white votes.
Black Southerners lost voting power after 1965. Southerners and segregationists decided to diminish African American ballots after they were cast. Gerrymandering and other methods diluted minority voting power.
African-Americans sued. After 1965, almost 50 vote-dilution cases inundated the courts. In the 1970s, the Supreme Court mandated majority-minority districts to combat vote dilution.
The Supreme Court and Department of Justice’s penchant for creating racial district borders to give minorities more influence in elections in “majority-minority districts” concerned conservatives in the early 1980s. These districts ensured minority candidates were elected without vote dilution.
Conservative politicians and strategists said that majority-minority districts discriminated against whites because they prioritized electoral outcomes above participation, like affirmative action laws.
Republicans utilized legislative power, a Republican White House, and judicial selections to right-wing the federal courts and Justice Department in the 1980s. Conservatives replaced Voting Rights Act-protecting federal officials by the 1990s. Conservative lawsuits shaped civil rights statutes after these events and court conservatism.
Edward Blum’s well-funded anti-civil rights lawsuit saturated the courts. Blum wanted to eliminate municipal election oversight by the Voting Rights Act and racial quotas in higher education and employment.
These renowned test cases—Bush v. Vera (1996), Fisher v. University of Texas (2013), and Shelby v. Holder (2016)—were engineered by Blum, a legal strategist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (2015). Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College and SFA Inc. v. University of North Carolina are two legal cases that potentially change college admissions.
These lawsuits challenged the 1960s rights movement, or minority rights. Argument Jim Crow segregation—especially its overt brutality and sanctioned segregation—is dead, thus these safeguards are outmoded.
After over 30 years of Republican or split control of Congress and, to a lesser extent, the executive office, conservative Supreme Court appointments have turned the court red and virtually guaranteed conservative lawsuit wins.
The Shelby and Merrill lawsuits and current college admissions challenges attempt to eliminate racial concerns. In the Shelby decision, the court ruled that the record number of Black Americans in Alabama and national politics meant that racism was gone and the Voting Rights Act was no longer applicable.
These rulings have dismissed conservative charges of voter fraud and political intrigues at polling locations in largely minority voting areas. Voter fraud and challenged election results are a new kind of old, less violent racism.
Washington initially supported the Voting Rights Act, which worked. American politics’ racist inclinations have outpaced minority voting rights’ political will.
Minority voting rights are unprotected.