Change followed, with Congress passing the Voting Rights Act that same year. But 51 years later, a wave of new voting laws has emerged in the Southern states, potentially disenfranchising a large percentage of the roughly 3.72 million unregistered African-Americans in the region as of 2012.
Nine Southern states have implemented voting restrictions since 2012. Most require voters to show state-issued photo ID at the polls.
African-Americans who fought for voting rights during the Civil Rights movement claim the new laws are meant to secure a Republican majority in states with large black populations that consistently vote Democrat. In July, a North Carolina federal court overturned the state’s voter ID law, ruling that it targets African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.”
“It’s all about the political will,” said Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “If you look at a map where African-American populations are the largest, it’s basically all of the Southern states, and that’s where most of these new voting restrictions have been enacted.” But Southern black lawmakers, activists and citizens say multiple factors have left the African-American vote at its most vulnerable, citing apathy in the post-Barack Obama era, the declining influence of former civil rights activists and the difficulty of voter mobilization.
Nowhere in America is the debate over voting rights more symbolic than in Shelby County, Alabama. That’s where Frank “Butch” Ellis still lives on the same Columbiana farm where he grew up and in the same city where his grandfather Leven “Big Handy” Ellis served as mayor.
“Big Handy” Ellis was a founding member of the States Rights Democratic Party, or the Dixiecrats, formed in 1948 to oppose the Democratic Party’s support of civil rights. Sixty-five years later, his grandson set in motion the most significant Supreme Court decision on voting rights since the civil rights era – Shelby County v. Holder.
Gone is the provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that prevented certain states, primarily in the South, from passing voting laws without approval from the U.S. Department of Justice. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the tactics used to disenfranchise voters were a relic of the past and pre-clearance no longer was necessary.
“What the Supreme Court said in our case is history didn’t stop in 1965. History kept going and that Amendment 15, which is the enforcement power for discriminatory practice in voting, that it was not designed to punish for the past, but was designed to ensure a better future,” “Butch” Ellis told News21.
Ellis has been Shelby County’s attorney for 52 years. Unlike many of the counties south of it and Birmingham to the west, Shelby County has no significant civil rights history. The county is and always has been predominantly white.
And it continues to grow. The population increased by 65,000 people between 2000 and 2015, and is 83 percent white. Every elected official within Shelby County is a Republican. In some races, Democrats don’t run for office, leading to highly contested Republican primaries.
Ellis says the Shelby County case was not meant to affect the power of minorities or civil rights. Instead, it was necessary to cease the filing of paperwork and the spending of taxpayer dollars.
Ellis says the county hasn’t changed much since the Supreme Court decision, but it’s saving money and time. He says the county supports the Voting Rights Act, but Section 2 – which bans states from instituting any barriers to voting, like poll taxes or literacy tests – was its intended permanent enforcement, which still stands.
In 2011, Alabama passed a statewide voter ID law that took effect in 2014 after the Shelby County decision. Opponents of the law say it was an effort to discourage the black vote. The 2012 American National Elections Study found that 13 percent of African-Americans do not have photo ID; 5 percent of white people do not have IDs.
“The reason I supported the bill was to ensure that we had credibility and integrity in the electoral process,” said Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who co-sponsored the law while a state legislator. “The right to vote is one of the most basic rights that we have, and we want to make sure that everybody that wants to participate in the process is allowed to.”
Critics of the bill say the law discriminates against minorities, college students and the poor, saying these groups are less likely to have photo ID, a consistent home address or the means to learn the proper election procedures.
The law’s other implementations would be a bigger factor, with same-day registration during early voting and out-of-precinct voting on Election Day, allowing more than 29,000 people to vote in the primaries, according to a Democracy North Carolina analysis. Neither voting method will be available in November if the law is in place.
With North Carolina being a closely contested state the past few election cycles, any sort of voter apathy or suppression could have big ramifications. “This law could compromise the integrity of the vote,” he said. “The stakes are pretty dire. And it doesn’t matter who wins. Here, it’s about the integrity of our democratic process.
“History is on our side, I do believe that.”