The only problem with Lillian’s Right to Vote, a children’s book by Jonah Winter and Shane W. Evans, is that I can’t get through it without tearing up. It’s a powerful story about an old woman who exercises her hard-won right to vote.
On her way to vote, Lillian recalls the discrimination her ancestors faced because of the color of their skin, including slavery, mob violence, and post-emancipation prohibitions on full participation in civic life. She also thinks about the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which states that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged… on account of race,” and then the ratification fifty years later of the Nineteenth, which guarantees women the same right. Then, she recalls the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which addresses voting discrimination. That law makes the right to vote a reality for her.
She steps into the voting booth and pulls the lever.
By this point, I’m shedding tears of joy, and my daughters are cheering. Then, we turn the page to the Author’s Note, which reminds us that the right to vote still needs protection:
The sad coda to this story is that in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, eliminating federal oversight of states’ election processes.
That case was Shelby County v. Holder, 133 S. Ct. 2612 (2013), which invalidated the portion of the Voting Rights Act that determined which states and counties were required to seek preclearance from the federal government of their voting laws before those laws went into effect. As you can probably guess, most of those jurisdictions were in the South, places that maintained devices that were designed to prevent African Americans from voting (like literacy and knowledge tests).
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts claimed:
Nearly 50 years [after passage of the Voting Rights Act], things have changed dramatically… In the covered jurisdictions, voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels…. There is no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act. (internal citations omitted).
Despite this success, the Court struck down the most effective provision of the Act, stating that the formula for determining which jurisdictions required preclearance no longer reflected current conditions. The majority briefly noted that “voting discrimination still exists,” but as Justice Ginsburg noted in the dissent, “the Court today terminates the remedy that proved to be best suited to block that discrimination.” While other provisions of the Voting Rights Act remain intact, the Shelby decision greatly hampered the federal government’s ability to eradicate voting discrimination.
In the aftermath of that decision, there has been a proliferation of anti-democratic voting laws designed to reduce turnout or to dilute votes. For example, after the Shelby decision, Texas announced that its controversial voter identification law and its gerrymandered redistricting map would immediately go into effect. North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi also swiftly moved to use the Shelby decision to disenfranchise voters.
However, with Justice Scalia’s death last Saturday, there may be more hope for democracy. Scalia sided with the majority in Shelby, and is responsible for reprehensible decisions in several other civil rights cases, including the plurality decision in Vieth v. Jubelier, 541 U.S. 267 (2004), which affirmed a lower court decision that said that politically gerrymandered voting districts — oddly shaped districts that often dilute the votes of minorities — do not violate the Constitution. In Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, had it not been for Justice Kennedy’s swing vote, then Justice Scalia’s dissent would have prevailed, making it virtually impossible to challenge gerrymandering at all.
With Justice Scalia’s death, however, voting rights might not hinge on Justice Kennedy alone. In North Carolina, the most recent gerrymandering was so blatant that a federal court ordered them to re-draw their districts. The legislature has so far refused to do so, because they believed the Supreme Court would overrule the lower federal court, but that has been called into question by Scalia’s absence.
Let’s hope whoever fills Scalia’s seat on our highest court has a better respect for the equal rights of others than he did.
*Justice Scalia died in his sleep last Saturday while on a quail hunting trip. While some may think it’s too soon to speak our minds about him, I disagree. As for why we shouldn’t prevent ourselves from “speaking ill of the dead,” see Margaret Thatcher and Misapplied Death Etiquette: “That one should not speak ill of the dead is arguably appropriate when a private person dies, but it is wildly inappropriate for the death of a controversial public figure, particularly one who wielded significant influence and political power.”
**I learned about Lillian’s Right to Vote from Kara Newhouse (Thanks!).