By: Ebony Thomas
From slavery to Jim Crow, America has a long, dark history in the treatment of its African American citizenry. Although Congress ratified changes to the United States Constitution three times to benefit African Americans (i.e., the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 14th Amendment provided African Americans equal protection, and the 15th Amendment gave African American men a right to vote), the franchise did not come easily for former slaves. Many states imposed barriers, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, and other methods, to keep African Americans from accessing the ballot. It was not until 1965, under the leadership of President Lyndon B. Johnson, that the nation affirmed the promise of the Constitution to all Americans and effectively decimated States’ self-imposed barriers that kept African Americans from exercising their right to vote. This legislation is known as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This Act was a landmark piece of federal legislation and continues to serve as a reminder to all Americans of the impediments that African Americans endured to exercise their right to vote under the 15th Amendment. The Act was reauthorized in 2006. Nevertheless, in 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the United States Supreme Court invalidated a key provision of the Act. When Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act, it concluded that certain areas of the country had greater racial discrimination in voting than others. Section 4 of the Act used a formula keyed to the year 1964, based on whether a state used devices like literacy tests combined with minority voter registration data (known as “the coverage formula”). Through this formula, Section 4 designated parts of the country that needed changes to their voting laws cleared by the federal government. In Shelby, the Court struck down Section 4. Writing for a 5-4 majority, Chief Justice Roberts explained that “our country has changed” and the Section was based upon “obsolete statistics.” The effect of Shelby County is that the jurisdictions identified by the coverage formula in Section 4 no longer need to seek preclearance for new voting changes, unless they are covered by a separate court order.
Although neither Pennsylvania nor any of its counties were covered by Section 4’s coverage formula, its non coverage did not stop Pennsylvania legislators from taking offense to Section 4’s repeal. Three years after Shelby, six Pennsylvania legislators decided to take action. On August 18, 2016, six Democratic Pennsylvania state senators introduced Senate Resolution No. 415 to the General Assembly. This resolution called for the Pennsylvania Senate to urge the United States Congress to reenact Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. The resolution highlights the importance and the historical impact of the Voting Rights Act and why it is still needed. More importantly, the resolution concludes with a powerful statement that discrimination still exists in this nation and that it is necessary to restore Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act to protect citizens and encourage voter participation. This statement contradicts the majority rationale in Shelby County, that “our country has changed” so much that voter intimidation based upon race no longer exists.
Although Senate Resolution No. 415 has yet to pass, it is still a huge step to have a quasi-sovereign state potentially urging Congress to reenact a key provision to deter States from imposing barriers against their citizens. It is surprising that Pennsylvania may be the one leading the charge to reenact Section 4, because if Congress does decide to enact a new coverage formula, then Congress may use data from voter turnout to determine coverage eligibility. If Congress use such data, then some of Pennsylvania’s jurisdictions that have low voter turnout will be covered under Section 4. Regardless of Pennsylvania’s potential coverage, it is still great to see legislators taking an initiative that supports the right to vote for all of its citizens.