The Voting Rights Act is desperately needed today

Communities of color experience discrimination in every election

by Terry Ao Minnis and Sumin Woo

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5–4 to uphold Ohio’s purging of voter rolls. Under a “use it or lose it” policy, the state can revoke registration from voters who have not voted in six years or responded to a mailed request for confirmation of registration. This method of purging the rolls is most likely to affect Ohio’s limited English proficient Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Latinx communities as well as African American and less advantaged neighborhoods, according to Reuters. This fact was outlined in an amicus brief by Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund — noted by Justice Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion.

The decision to allow such aggressive purging practices is a reminder of just how much this Supreme Court is rolling back voting rights since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act occurred in the case, Shelby v. Holder. The landmark 2013 case, which ended with another 5–4 ruling, held that the requirement for select states to be “precleared” under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) was unconstitutional. Under the preclearance provision, these states needed the approval of the Attorney General or a Washington, D.C. district court to alter any election procedures.

In the dissenting opinion of Shelby v. Holder, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Justice Ginsburg was right. This decision paved the way for previously-covered states to change or enact new voting requirements with minimal federal supervision. Immediately following the Shelby decision, a Florida county returned to using English-only ballots and a Georgia county closed numerous polling sites while establishing new ones at police stations. North Carolina, which enacted a massive voter suppression bill shortly after the decision, was found to have discriminated against voters of color in passing that law. Many of these restrictions would have been prevented and voters would not be facing more barriers to voting if the Supreme Court decision had not gutted the Voting Rights Act.

Unfortunately, we have seen a failure of Congressional leadership to address this problem effectively. In the last five years, there have been bi-partisan bills introduced in the House and Senate but each has been unsuccessful in restoring the VRA. Their unwillingness to act leaves Asian American communities vulnerable.

As the fastest-growing racial group in the United States, Asian Americans are gaining more power as an electorate bloc, but this growing influence is muted without the ability to vote. Communities of color experience discrimination in every election. Given that states like Ohio are being allowed to use voter purge tactics and others to keep our communities from voting, restoration of the VRA is desperately needed to protect all of us from voter suppression and discrimination.

Terry Ao Minnis is the director of census and voting programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC. Sumin Woo is a communications intern with Advancing Justice | AAJC.