As expected, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to render Section 4[foot]This section determines the states that must preclear any attempt to change voting laws with the federal government.[/foot] of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. Although it kept the preclearance section (Section 5) itself, this section is pretty much useless without the presence of Section 4. 

Critics of the Voting Rights Act will likely consider this a tremendous victory for federalism, given the undue burden they believe the Voting Rights Act placed on states. And they are undoubtedly right. Federalists believe that our system requires that states have much more power over their internal affairs than the federal government, and that our country runs best when states are able to meet the specific needs of their citizens relatively unfettered.

However critics of the Voting Rights Act willfully ignore the roots of federalism in white supremacy. Particularly in the south, federalism translates into two very simple words:



For the unaware those two words translate into this. And this. And this. The 13th Amendment represents an attempt to reconcile the harm done to the nation and to black men, women, and children, by in effect making anti-racism a more important principle than federalism. Before its passage individuals were citizens of individual states and through their state citizenship, were national citizens. After its passage individuals were national citizens first and foremost. The states still had any number of rights…but they could no longer constitutionally withhold those rights from black people (from black citizens). The Voting Rights Act passed 100 years later represented an attempt to further cement this important principle.   

Now one could argue that this was history. That the south of today isn't the south of old. The demographics of the south are definitely changing–the South is becoming much more diverse than it was, with large numbers of non-southern whites moving into the region, and with large numbers of blacks and Latino/as coming as well.

However recent attempts by North CarolinaArkansas and Florida among others to suppress non-white votes should put the myth that the south is really different to rest. 

The week before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments The Atlantic ran an excellent piece on the contemporary relevance of the Voting Rights Act. This is the key paragraph:

Since 1982, the feds told the justices in their Shelby County brief, "… approximately 2,400 discriminatory voting changes had been blocked by more than 750 Section 5 objections, approximately 400 of which involved cases with specific evidence of intentional discrimination." Without Section 5, the feds argue, minority voters would have had to sue individually, at great cost of time and money, in some cases after having lost their right to vote. Like it was before the passage of the statute.

Although there are enough instances of voter suppression in non-southern states to suggest that a number of them (Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania come to mind) should be placed under scrutiny as well, the passage above suggests that Section 4 is still required and still relevant.

So what to do?

The reason the 2nd Amendment has the power it does is because of the NRA. 

I suggest the creation of an organization devoted to preserving and extending voting laws–the National Voting Association. People already take voting seriously, as witnessed by the hours people were willing to spend standing in line. But there is no organization that has the sole purpose of protecting the right to vote. There is no organization that has the purpose of creating a shared "voter identity". Before the NRA there were people who happened to own guns. After the NRA there were "gun-owners". They understood their ability to own and use firearms as a crucial part of their identity. 

We need to create the same type of identity among voters. 

Now there are a couple of obvious problems with this idea, particularly as far as comparing it to the NRA.

The NRA is backed by gun manufacturers.[foot]From the Huffington Post:

These companies and other gun industry giants have ponied up big bucks to the NRA since 2005, according to a list of NRA corporate partners posted at its last convention.

For instance, Brownells is in an elite group of donors that have given between $1 million and $4.9 million since 2005. Barrett Firearms in the same period chipped in between $50,000 and $99,000.

Another notable donor is Freedom Group, which owns Bushmaster, the company that made the AR-15 military-style rifle used by Adam Lanza in his bloody assault on Sandy Hook. The Freedom Group has donated between $25,000 and $49,000 to the NRA’s corporate effort.

The NRA’s most generous gun industry backer is MidwayUSA, a distributor of high-capacity magazine clips, similar to ones that Lanza loaded into his Bushmaster rifle and Glock pistol. These clips increase the lethality of weapons by allowing dozens of shots to be fired before the shooter has to reload. According to its website, Midway has donated about $7.7 million to the NRA through another fundraising program that dates back to 1992. Under this program, customers who buy Midway products are asked to “round up” the price to the next dollar, with the company donating the difference to the NRA.[/foot]

The financial backing of the gun manufacturers enables the organization to have a far larger footprint than they would have otherwise. There are no "vote manufacturers" who would have similar weight. 

What about leaders like Rep. John Lewis? 

This is the second problem. The secret no one really talks about is that no one really wants too much political participation from voters. Because if they voted in large enough numbers then representatives would have to give them what they wanted, or at the very least be more attentive to their interests. Black representatives like Lewis are no different here–one of the reasons members of Congress are re-elected at over a 90% clip is because turnout is so low. Political representatives, even representatives who are most likely criticizing the ruling in front of the media as I type this, do not in general have more than a symbolic interest in supporting voters AS voters.

Which suggests such an attempt must be a grassroots movement, starting locally and to the extent possible outside of the two party system. It also suggests that such a movement begin to the extent possible with enough fanfare to make its presence known, and without the participation of a number of elites attached to the two-party system (here I'm thinking about folks like the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Reverend Al Sharpton). 

With the increased browning of America I'd argue that this ruling (along with the recent ruling on Affirmative Action in college admissions) will become moot sooner rather than later. However I believe this specific ruling represents an opportunity to call for a radically different political project, one that re-centers voting and citizenship into the heart of the American experiment.