Voting rights are a perennial topic in American politics. Recent elections and the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder , which struck down key enforcement provisions in the Voting Rights Act (VRA), have only placed further emphasis on the debate over voter disenfranchaisement. Over the past five decades, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have consistently voted to expand the protections offered to vulnerable voters by the Voting Rights Act. And yet, the administration of the VRA has become more fragmented and judicial interpretation of its terms has become much less generous. Why have Republicans consistently adopted administrative and judicial decisions that undermine legislation they repeatedly endorse?
Ballot Blocked shows how the divergent trajectories of legislation, administration, and judicial interpretation in voting rights policymaking derive largely from efforts by conservative politicians to narrow the scope of federal enforcement while at the same time preserving their public reputations as supporters of racial equality and minority voting rights. Jesse H. Rhodes argues that conservatives adopt a paradoxical strategy in which they acquiesce to expansive voting rights protections in Congress (where decisions are visible and easily traceable) while simultaneously narrowing the scope of federal enforcement via administrative and judicial maneuvers (which are less visible and harder to trace). Over time, the repeated execution of this strategy has enabled a conservative Supreme Court to exercise preponderant influence over the scope of federal enforcement.
About the Author
Jesse H. Rhodes is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author of An Education in Politics: The Origins and Evolution of No Child Left Behind (2012).
Table of Contents
Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Explaining the Puzzling Evolution of the Voting Rights Act
This chapter lays out the main arguments of the book. It contends that the divergent trajectories of legislation, administration, and judicial interpretation in voting rights policy making derive largely from efforts by conservative politicians to narrow the scope of federal enforcement while at the same time preserving their public reputation of support for racial equality and minority voting rights. Conservatives reconciled these conflicting imperatives by adopting a strategy in which they would acquiesce to expansive voting rights protections in Congress, where decisions were highly visible, easily traceable, and open to contestation by civil rights activists, but at the same time work to narrow the scope of federal enforcement via administrative maneuvers and judicial appointments, where choices were less visible, harder to trace, and less open to political challenge.
1Liberal Ascendance and Enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
This chapter provides a history and explanation of the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, focusing on three factors that provide key explanatory leverage: rising frustration with the poor performance of existing voting rights protections, emergence of a powerful civil rights movement capable of dramatizing voting rights abuses and pressuring members of Congress and the president, and ascendance of a dominant liberal coalition capable of driving effective voting rights legislation through Congress. Early implementation and judicial interpretation of the statute are also discussed, with a focus on how these dynamics introduced new tensions in the Act that could not have been anticipated at the time of its enactment.
2Conservative Backlash and Partisan Struggle over Voting Rights, 1968-1980
This chapter shows that Richard Nixon pioneered the strategy that would become central to Republican activity in relation to voting rights issues. Although Nixon desired to limit the scope of voting rights enforcement for both ideological and constituency reasons, in the end great anxiety about the negative electoral repercussions of weakening the VRA through legislation led him to acquiesce to an expansive reauthorization of the Act. At the same time, though, Nixon used administrative maneuvers and judicial appointments to check the scope of federal enforcement and thereby serve both ideological goals and core constituency demands. Because of his actions, the text, administrative enforcement, and judicial interpretation of the Act began to move in very different directions.
3The Growing Struggle over Voting Rights in the 1980s and 1990s
This chapter explains the growing gulf between the expansive text, increasingly fragmented administration, and increasingly conservative judicial interpretation of the VRA. This development is attributable to efforts by the Reagan administration (and, to a lesser extent, the George H. W. Bush administration) to simultaneously limit the scope of federal voting rights enforcement and maintain the appearance of support for the norm of racial equality. The president and his congressional allies acquiesced to an expansive reauthorization of the Act so as to avoid alienating people of color and moderate whites going into the 1982 elections. Yet, at the same time, conservatives within the Reagan administration deliberately pursued an administrative strategy to limit the scope of federal enforcement. Reagan also selected jurists for positions on the Supreme Court who were expected to pursue his vision of a "limited Constitution" in which the Court closely policed federal efforts to expand minority voting rights.
4Voting Rights Politics in an Era of Conservative Ascendance, 2001-2013
The George W. Bush administration deliberately politicized voting rights administration, using unscrupulous methods to discipline and muzzle dissident staff, promote ideologically congruous attorneys, and enshrine conservative decisions in law. Additionally, Bush deliberately selected jurists with extremely narrow views of voting rights law for positions on the Supreme Court, ensuring that the Court would move further down the conservative path it had traversed since the Nixon administration. Yet, at the same time, the administration endorsed a sweeping reauthorization of the VRA that expanded legislative guarantees and reauthorized key provisions for a twenty-five-year period. The discrepancies between Republicans' administrative/judicial actions and their legislative behaviors were attributable to the varying visibility, traceability, and accessibility of politics in these different venues.
5Voting Rights Politics in the Age of Obama, 2009-2016
This chapter highlights the impact of the Shelby County decision on the patterning of voting rights policy making, revealing how the decision altered the political playing field to the advantage of Republican opponents of muscular federal voting rights enforcement. With its ruling in Shelby County, the conservative justices on the Supreme Court swept aside the provision Republicans most vigorously opposed. This new state of affairs relieved Republicans of the politically fraught burden of justifying departures from existing voting rights law and allowed them to exploit their majority status in Congress to obstruct "divisive" legislation proposed by Democrats. For their part, given the infeasibility of reestablishing preclearance in a Congress in which Republicans controlled the House of Representativesand, after 2014, the Senate as wellDemocrats made the strategic choice to highlight Republican intransigence as a campaign issue in order to rally support among African American and Latino constituents.
Conclusion: Partisan Interests, Institutional Conflict, and the Future of the Voting Rights Struggle
This chapter reviews the evidence, draws conclusions, and lays out some preliminary thoughts about the likely future of the voting rights struggle. Ultimately, it suggests, the right to vote is vulnerable, and its defense depends on affirmative efforts by civil rights activists, progressives, and their elected allies at all levels of government.