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.