Curbing Voting Rights Laws Could Stunt Black Political Representation

Lax legislation could slow the growing numbers of black elected officials in Southern states, according to a new study.

Supporters of the Voting Rights Act gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court building on June 25, 2013. The court temporarily struck down the law's "preclearance" requirement, which would be reinstated if the Voting Rights Amendment Act passes.
National Journal
Marina Koren
Oct. 8, 2013, 4 a.m.

“Our coun­try has changed,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the June Su­preme Court de­cision to strike down part of the Vot­ing Rights Act, which re­quired states with a his­tory of ra­cial dis­crim­in­a­tion to get fed­er­al ap­prov­al be­fore chan­ging their elec­tion laws.

Roberts was right. The civil-rights le­gis­la­tion not only re­moved some bar­ri­ers to vot­ing that minor­ity groups in those states faced in 1965, it also boos­ted the num­ber of minor­ity can­did­ates for elec­ted of­fice there as well. But that ra­cial pro­gress, ac­cord­ing to a new study, is now threatened be­cause the land­mark law is gone.

Between 1981 and 2006, the city coun­cils that made the biggest gains in black rep­res­ent­a­tion were loc­ated in the nine states covered by Sec­tion 4 of the Vot­ing Rights Act. The num­ber of cit­ies in the des­ig­nated states with at least one black city-coun­cil mem­ber rose by 82 per­cent, from 552 to 1,004 cit­ies, ac­cord­ing to a study to be pub­lished in The Journ­al of Polit­ics this month. The num­ber of cit­ies not covered by the le­gis­la­tion that had at least one Afric­an-Amer­ic­an city-coun­cil mem­ber in­creased just 3.3 per­cent, from 732 to 756 cit­ies.

This sum­mer’s Su­preme Court de­cision, the au­thors write, could harm black par­ti­cip­a­tion and rep­res­ent­a­tion in the mostly South­ern states once covered by the Vot­ing Rights Act. It may even, over time, lead to a re­versal of a two-dec­ade trend.

“It is im­port­ant to un­der­stand the con­sequences of the dis­crim­in­at­ory prac­tices of the pre-civil-rights era,” said study coau­thor Melissa Marschall, a polit­ic­al sci­ence pro­fess­or at Rice. “Blacks not only en­countered a num­ber of vote-di­lu­tion prac­tices (in­clud­ing bar­ri­ers to re­gis­tra­tion) and out­right voter in­tim­id­a­tion, but they also faced sig­ni­fic­ant eco­nom­ic bar­ri­ers that lim­ited their so­cioeco­nom­ic ad­vance­ment. The VRA was de­signed to dis­mantle obstacles that dis­cour­aged black polit­ic­al par­ti­cip­a­tion.”

The study used data col­lec­ted by the Joint Cen­ter for Polit­ic­al and Eco­nom­ic Stud­ies and the In­ter­na­tion­al City County Man­ager As­so­ci­ation.

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