When the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in June, it eliminated a long-standing distinction that certain states and communities – due to their deep histories of discrimination – warranted extra scrutiny under the law. Those places, identified in Section 4, were required to "pre-clear" any changes to voting laws or procedures with the federal government (a requirement outlined in Section 5). Now that is no longer the case.
Nearly half a century after the VRA's passage, critics had begun to argue that the law had successfully served its purpose (see: America's first black president, and these demographics that elected him), and that states like Texas and Alabama no longer deserved to be tarred by their past intolerance.
A very interesting new study to be published in The Journal of Politics makes clear, however, that Section 5 of the VRA – which is now effectively irrelevant – played a major role in boosting black political representation, and that its impact was ongoing. The study's authors, Paru R. Shah of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Melissa J. Marschall of Rice University, and Anirudh V. S. Ruhil of Ohio University, examined the racial makeup of city councils across the country between 1981 and 2006.
In that time, blacks made the largest gains on city councils in those areas covered by Section 5.
For example, in 1981, 552 towns and cities covered by Section 5 had at least one African American serving on the city council. By 2001, that number had risen to 1,004, an increase of 82 percent. In the rest of the country, by contrast, the share of cities with at least one black councilman inched up by just 3.3 percent (from 732 to 756). (The data in this study comes from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the International City/County Manager Association.)
Section 5 appears to have worked just as intended, enabling the greatest gains in minority representation in precisely those places where blacks had the most ground to make up. The question now – and the one raised by the Supreme Court decision – is whether those gains have been complete. Or, as the authors pose it in the title of their paper, "Are we there yet?"
Our findings suggest that the VRA has been and continues to be an important tool in ensuring black descriptive representation, particularly in places with a legacy of racial intimidation and discrimination, and that it creates a context that intensifies the effects of voter strength, electoral structures, and council size. Thus, in response to the question, ‘‘Are we there yet,’’ our study would say no, but that with the help of the VRA, we are getting closer.
It should be noted that in the slow world of academic publishing, the authors wrote those words before the latest Supreme Court ruling.
Graphically, these charts from the study illustrate two vastly different trajectories over the past generation: Blacks experienced slow (and sometimes declining) gains on city councils in places not covered by Section 5, but they experienced tremendous gains in those places that were:
These three charts show the percentage of cities, in a given year, with zero, one, or two or more blacks on the city council:
To be more specific, though, where did blacks experience the greatest gains? In small towns? In places that already had large black populations? The authors also spliced their data looking at the percentage of a city's black voting-age population. The result:
In places with majority black populations, coverage provides the least assistance. On the other hand, we find the steepest gains in covered cities where the black population is less than 20%, suggesting the VRA may be most important in places where black population size cannot, by itself, ensure black representation.
All of this, the authors write, suggests that Section 5 of the VRA "has paid dividends to racial minorities that otherwise might not have resulted." And now that the law has been hobbled, minorities risk those gains.
In fact, the list of obstacles that can curtail minority political power is today longer, subtler and sometimes more insidious than it was a generation ago. And it includes policies – like the disenfranchisement of felons – that were never envisioned in 1965.
Some of the greatest evidence of the impact of the VRA has been seen in the months since June, as states formerly scrutinized under Section 5 have rushed to implement changes to voting laws that had been blocked under the VRA. This study now adds yet more evidence in the indisputable form of data.
Top image from a demonstration in front of the Supreme Court this February: Gary Cameron/Reuters