Amidst pundits’ claims of a “post-racial” America, and at a time when voter disenfranchisement efforts reached as far north as Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Shelby County v. Holder has effectively neutered the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and set U.S. voting rights back decades.
In Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice John Roberts and the majority of the Supreme Court maintained that “the conditions that originally justified these measures [‘to address entrenched racial discrimination’] no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions” of Section Four of the Voting Rights Act.
But the base tactics used to discourage people of color and members of low-income and underserved communities from voting in the 2012 presidential election reveal what the Voting Rights Act describes as the “insidious and pervasive evil” of voter intimidation and mass disinformation campaigns being exercised only 48 years after its passage. Indeed, fueled by the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia – states that were previously covered by Section Four of the Act – swiftly issued new voter ID laws and began reconsidering changes to previously drawn redistricting maps.
Absent the protection afforded by Section Four of the Voting Rights Act, which required nine states to receive federal pre-clearance before changing voting laws or practices as a result of their discriminatory voter suppression and racially-motivated redistricting practices, the Supreme Court now subjects the voting public to state-sponsored misinformation, voter intimidation, and politically-motivated redistricting. Given the current political gridlock on Capitol Hill, Congress is not likely to revise the pre-clearance formula for Section Four anytime soon.
Broadcasters Can Play a Familiar Role By Promoting the Public Interest in the Democratic Processes
For nearly 90 years, broadcasters have been charged with upholding the First Amendment and making sure that the masses are afforded the opportunity to hear varying perspectives from political candidates vying for public office. Since the Radio Act of 1927 and the Telecommunications Act of 1934 (and its successive versions up through the 1996 Act), broadcasters have been obligated to act as “public trustees” when it comes to disseminating political information to the masses.
Historically, broadcasters have played a critical role in upholding the public interest by promoting the democratic process in this country. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, “upholding the public interest” meant that broadcasters not only allowed their platforms to be used for political candidates to engage each other on the issues of the day, but they also provided the primary outlets through which people were able to stay abreast of civil rights violations and efforts to rectify the ills of segregation.
Broadcasters were actively engaged in raising awareness about police abuses, protests, and proper voting locations and protocols, galvanizing the public’s conscience in a way that inspired people to advocate the ultimate passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This role has been repeatedly reinforced by Section 315 of the Telecommunications Act, in which Congress essentially told the Federal Communications Commission that it has a special role to play in ensuring that elections are fair, that candidates have a chance to get their messages out, and that voters are well informed.
Today, in light of the Holder decision, and with states finding more crafty ways to suppress the votes of critical constituencies, broadcasters need to step up to the challenge of truly serving their local communities’ needs and interests, consistent with their public interest obligations under the Communications Act and their historical role of protecting the democratic processes by exposing civil rights and voting rights abuses.
While many may view the Holder decision as a setback in this nation’s broader civil rights struggles, broadcasters should see this moment as a call to action to take their role as public trustee and their obligation to serve the public interest to the next level.
[Note] The critically acclaimed film The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, is a documentary by filmmaker Stanley Nelson that recounts the largely untold history of the Black press and the stories of generations of Black journalists who risked their lives to tell the truth about racial issues in America.