Political Scientist Rick Valelly '75 Says Voting Rights Act Decision May Reinvigorate Democracy

by Zach Epstein
Rick Valelly '75
Claude C. Smith '14 Professor of Political Science Rick Valelly '75

In the wake of the Supreme Court striking down part of the Voting Rights Act, Claude C. Smith '14 Professor of Political Science Rick Valelly '75 says that despite the Court's controversial ruling, the decision may reinvigorate American democracy.

"We are going to call our Congress to order," he says, "and ask it to do the right thing and fix the Voting Rights Act. Right now, if you are discouraged from applying to law school, think again – this is a good time to devote yourself to election law.  Right now, if you are wondering what to do yourself after graduating from college or thinking about taking a year off from your career track, here’s a thought: you can park yourself in Mississippi or South Dakota with a working group from the ACLU and you can start observing whether elections are fair. This is a time for democratic renewal."

While he disagrees with the decision, Valelly, who has also written for Washington Monthly and The Hindu on the subject, says the ruling may spur citizens and lawmakers alike into action. He believes the issue will require a bipartisan effort, and the role Congress plays going forward will be one to watch closely.

"I don’t like it; I would have preferred that the Court had left well enough alone," he says. "The two parties may find common ground again. But if they don’t, then there will be a slowly moving crisis of minority voting rights, and depending on how that crisis turns out, we will become stronger – or weaker – as a democracy. But Congress is back in the picture again, and trying to get Congress to step back into this policy domain is now a new task that voting rights advocates must take on. "

What makes this case particularly interesting to Valelly is the rationale given by Chief Justice John Roberts and the Court for upending the law. 

"What’s fascinating in all of this is how experimental the Roberts Court is, and how activist it is," Valelly says. "Flying the flag of federalism and certain that we live in a post-racial country, it has suspended one of the most successful statutes in American history precisely because it has been such a success."

Valelly, whose primer on American politics was published this spring by Oxford University Press, points out that the Court's decision will have a very tangible affect on voters in some states.

"African-American (and also Latino) voters in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia may soon find subtle changes in the voting process," he says. "Polling stations that used to be open in minority neighborhoods may now be closed down."

Valelly notes that desipte the immense progress American democracy has made since its inception, "here we are, nearly 200 years after mass suffrage emerged, and we are still debating what we consider a keystone of American democratic politics: the right to vote."