Professor analyzes consequences of 'gutted' Voting Rights Act

Quinnipiac political science professor Khalilah Brown-Dean speaks during her lecture on voting trends in the UConn Student Union in Storrs, Connecticut on Thursday, March 24, 2016. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

In an election year, everyone knows a political person that posts regularly on social media. Unlike most political junkies, however, associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac Khalilah Brown-Dean is less interested in who is voting, and more so in who is not voting.

“History will be made in November of this year. But with all the debates about Trump’s hands, Bernie Sanders’ suits and Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, something gets lost,” Brown-Dean said. “I’m interested in who’s voting and who’s not voting.”

The upcoming election in November is significant not only because it might result in the first female or Jewish president, Brown-Dean explained, but because it is the first election since the Supreme Court of the United States eliminated some of the protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the Shelby v. Holder decision in 2013.

“This will be the first national election since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965…For fifty years, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has protected minority voters. I’m interested in what’s going to happen when that protection is ripped away.”

There is a hypocrisy in American society, Brown-Dean explained, given that the United States will go to extreme lengths to introduce and support democracy in other countries. At the same time, Brown-Dean said, the United States is failing to protect democracy within its own borders.

“We’re talking about efforts to establish democracy abroad. When we see terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, the question is always ‘what can we do?’” Brown-Dean said. “How have we as a country failed to protect democracy at home?

Brown-Dean acknowledged that significant progress had been made since the Voting Rights Act was passed, but argued that we should also better understand what it took to get there.

“What we talk about in the report is, yes, significant progress has been made since the Voting Rights Act of 1965…Yes, an African American president resides in the White House,” Brown-Dean said. “It opened up access to people who no longer had to pay a poll tax to vote…understand the victory, recognize what it took to get there, and understand what it took to get there.”

What it took to get there, Brown-Dean explained, included overcoming significant barriers to voting, including poll taxes, tests like how many beans were in a jar and criminal disenfranchisement.

“There were these extralegal ways of lynchings and violence. The main way was by what I call criminal disenfranchisement. Why, in the post-reconstruction south, are we seeing this?” Brown-Dean said. “The amendments after the civil war made it clear that you couldn’t disenfranchise someone based on their race…Lawmakers realized that federalism let them carve out their own space, so they made rules that disenfranchised blacks without ever referencing race.”

The way that lawmakers did this, Brown-Dean said, was by selectively choosing which crimes could cause someone to lose their right to vote.

“So how did they do it? They based what crimes prevented you from voting based on what crimes blacks were more likely to commit, and excluding those crimes that whites were more likely to commit,” Brown-Dean said. “In Alabama, if you beat your wife, then you lose your right to vote. However, if you kill your wife, then you keep the right to vote, because the data showed that blacks were more likely to beat their wives and whites more likely to kill them.”

Something that often gets lost, Brown-Dean explained, is the personal cost that everyone in the civil rights movement paid, including those college students who came to the south to help with the civil rights movement and faced expulsion as a result.

“Here’s what’s important, and here’s what gets lost when old people start lamenting to young people…people were expelled from their schools if they went to the south to help with the civil rights movement, and their parents and friends were threatened,” Brown-Dean said. “Can you imagine calling your parents and telling them that you’re going to be kicked out of school but you’re going to fight for democracy?”

The immediate impact of the Voting Rights Act was tremendous, Brown-Dean said, and resulted in an immediate and sharp rise in the number of African American voters and candidates.

“LBJ signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 In August of that year, and almost immediately we see an increase in the number of African Americans who register, who actually go to vote and who are elected,” Brown-Dean said. 

Students at the event were impressed with the scope of the lecture, and suggested that the way the presentation tied into the upcoming election made the subject more interesting and, in some ways, more worrying.  

“It covered things I didn’t think it would cover. The way she’s tying it into the election today and how [Donald] Trump because of institutionalized racism and the Voting Rights Act being broken down by the Supreme Court,” Nick Pahm, a sixth semester political science major, said. 

Dean-Brown warned that the voting landscape could look radically different this November compared to previous elections, given that the difficulty of voting has been increased significantly in states like Texas, Georgia and North Carolina.

This, she argued, is due to the introduction of photo ID laws in the aftermath of Shelby v Holder.

“We’ve increased the number of voters, and we’re increased the number of office-holders, but we still see groups that are underrepresented,” Brown-Dean said. “Progress has been made, but it’s nowhere near equality."


Edward Pankowski is the life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.pankowski@uconn.edu.