Supreme Court Watch: Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder and the South Asian Community

On June 25, 2013, in the case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, the Supreme Court invalidated Section 4 of the Voting Rights of 1965 ruling it unconstitutional. SAALT strongly condemns the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act which has been pivotal in protecting minority voters’ ability to participate in the American democracy. In January 2013, SAALT joined an amicus brief in the case, along with 27 other Asian American organizations, arguing in favor of the Voting Rights Act, particularly given its importance related to language access and political representation.

With the backdrop of egregious racial discrimination against minority voters, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act articulates a formula to determine which jurisdictions are required to have any changes in their voting laws pre-cleared by the Department of Justice or a federal court (under Section 5 of the legislation) to ensure that minority voters’ ability to vote is not diminished. The trigger formula used to designate such jurisdictions, as outlined in Section 4, is based on various factors, including historical evidence of racially discriminatory voting practices, impact on language minority groups, and low minority voter turnout. While the Court recognized that racial discrimination continues to plague the ability for many to vote, it stated that the coverage formula used in Section 4 was “outdated” in light of recent increased minority voter turnout, disapproved of states being treated differently under the law, and suggested that Congress update the formula in order to pass constitutional muster. This counterintuitive reasoning ignores that Sections 4 and 5 have been pivotal in promoting enfranchisement, considerable evidence proves racial discrimination at the polls continues, and federal legislators have recognized the importance of keeping the Voting Rights Act in effect. In fact, the Voting Rights Act, including Section 4, has increasingly enjoyed significant bipartisan support within Congress over the years and was most recently reauthorized almost unanimously in 2006.

The right to vote has been a long-fought battle for communities of color in the United States. The Voting Rights Act is an historic and crucial piece of legislation that was borne out of our country’s Civil Rights Movement and the pioneering struggles of the African American community in the 1960s. Indeed, the South Asian community’s own path to attain naturalization, conferring the right to vote, has been a rocky one. In 1923, the Supreme Court then ruled that South Asians were not considered white by the common person and thus could not be considered citizens; this remained in effect until legislation was enacted decades later. In more recent years, as documented by election monitoring and exit polling efforts, South Asian and other voters of color continue to encounter barriers at the polls because of race, religion, and language ability and restrictive voter identification proposals continue to threaten the right to vote. South Asians will not be immune from today’s disappointing ruling, particularly given our community’s overall size and growth in jurisdictions previously covered under the Section 4 formula, including Arizona, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia.

This ruling is a grave setback for voting rights and equality in the country that ignores both the historical and contemporary evidence of discrimination that minority voters face. Community members are encouraged to join a petition calling for an amendment to protect the rights of all voters. Looking forward, SAALT will continue to work with allies when Congress develops a new coverage formula in light of today’s ruling and ensure that it addresses discrimination against racial, ethnic, and language minorities.

SAALT thanks Priya Murthy for her assistance in providing analysis and writing.