Voting Is A Universal Right

t no longer surprises me when extremist state legislators try to restrict our voting
rights. But it truly surprised me when I sat in the United States Supreme Court on February 27 and listened to an associate Justice refer to the right to vote as a “racial entitlement.”

Justice Antonin Scalia used the phrase as he argued that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is no longer necessary. Discussing the wide margin with which the Voting Rights Act has been reenacted in both the Senate and the House of Representatives—most recently under President George W. Bush—he said, "Now, I don't think that's attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this. I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It's been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes."

Racial Entitlement: the term that has inspired hundreds of articles by right-wing commentators. Those words never fail to elicit fear and loathing among the reactionary set. They suggest undeserved privilege, unearned benefits.

But they do not accurately describe the Voting Rights Act.

When Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, his signature did not grant anyone the right to vote.


Universal suffrage for men and women had already been established years earlier. Instead, the law was intended to protect the right to vote. The crucial Section 5 has one function: to stop a state from unduly disenfranchising its own citizens.

Far from being outdated, the Voting Rights Act is more relevant today than at any time in the past few decades. In the past two years alone, six of the nine states wholly covered by the Voting Rights Act passed laws making it harder for people of color to vote. Texas introduced a voter ID law that would allow people to register with a gun license but not a student ID, while Florida attempted to limit Sunday voting, which historically sees heavy African American turnout.

Without Section 5, these laws would have been in place for the 2012 elections.

And far from being a static fixture in our legal system, Section 5 is in fact extremely flexible. Every jurisdiction covered by Section 5 can apply to “bail out” if they can show a decade without voting discrimination. In the past four years, nearly 130 jurisdictions have bailed out through the so-called “normal political process”—most recently, Prince William County in Virginia.

Guaranteed access to the ballot box is not the right of one race, age group, or economic class. It is a universal right. It is by definition an American entitlement: an entitlement given to each of us when we become citizens of this country, by birth or otherwise. Justice Scalia’s comments ignored the realities of the country today and the Voting Rights Act as it is applied. They have no place in the conversation.


— Benjamin Todd Jealous
President and CEO, NAACP