Lost Voices: How our Democracy is Still Suffering From Shelby County v. Holder

Noah Fornataro, May 20, 2024

The validity of our political elections is in question. The problem of low voter turnout in the United States and the increasing political polarization between Democrats and Republicans have led many to question the success of America’s electoral system. However, in searching for the answers to why our voting system is flawed, previous court rulings that are still affecting voters today have been overlooked. One such decision is Shelby County v. Holder (2013), a Supreme Court case that has disenfranchised marginalized communities and opened the floodgates for voter suppression.


The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) was passed with the goal of removing racially discriminatory restrictions on voting [1]. However, in April of 2010, Shelby County, Alabama challenged the constitutionality of Section 4(b) from the VRA, upset with the burden it placed on requiring “preclearance” for election changes from the Attorney General. This “pre-clearance” required approval from the Department of Justice and/or the Attorney General that the state’s proposed polling closures would not disenfranchise certain groups of people [2]. After the U.S. Court of Appeals - District of Columbia Circuit upheld the constitutionality of Section 4(b), Shelby County took the case to the Supreme Court [3]. In a contested 5 to 4 vote in favor of Shelby County, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled Section 4(b) of the VRA unconstitutional.


The Shelby County v. Holder decision opened up the opportunity for states all over the country to move their polling locations far from voters in rural areas. As a result, over 1,000 polling locations have closed from 2014-2018 alone, and U.S. jurisdictions are now free to exercise changes to polling sites without evaluating these changes for discriminatory effects [4]. Many people now face longer commutes to polling locations, thus creating barriers to voting for certain counties. For example, local voting centers in Lincoln County, Georgia were moved up to 23 miles away in 2021. This movement has disproportionately hurt rural voters as well as voters with disabilities that already have a much harder time finding ways to show up to polling locations.


Although county-wide voting centers are a significantly cheaper alternative to local polling centers, the displacement provides a disparate toll on certain communities and ethnic groups [5]. This impacts minority communities on a far greater scale because some minority households are less likely to own a family vehicle. For example, Black households are 18 percent less likely to own a car and Asian American households are 11 percent less likely [6]. In addition, increasing the distance of a polling site by only 0.62 miles decreases the probability of voting for Latinos compared to non-Latinos by more than 2 percent, demonstrating the harmful effect of increased polling distances. With fewer polling sites, voters face longer wait times in line and many of the working class and voters with disabilities do not have the luxury to afford this delay. A 2017 study by the Social Science Quarterly found that over 30 percent of voters with a disability listed excessive wait times as one of their top reasons for not showing up to the polls [7]. Shelby County v. Holder exacerbates this issue to a greater extent by allowing states to substitute neighborhood polling locations which are already overcrowded for overpopulated countywide polling locations.


Furthermore, when analyzing the closing of polling locations due to Shelby County v. Holder on an aggregate scale, it becomes apparent that counties are closing on partisan lines. In the United States electoral system, each state’s Secretary of State and their election division controls their state’s voter registration and election activity [8]. Before, state officials were monitored and limited by the Civil Rights division in the Justice Department for any rash and discriminatory decision-making affecting their state's election process. However, due to the decision in Shelby County v. Holder, all of these preventative measures, such as the appointment of federal examiners, were removed. For example in Georgia, far-right GOP conservative Brian Kemp was responsible for the closure of over 214 polling locations in a key battleground state. During his term in Georgia, which has a population that is 31 percent African American and over 8 percent Latino, an estimated 54,000 - 85,000 voters were prevented from voting in the 2018 midterm election, in which he ran for governor, due to the closing of neighborhood polling locations [9]. As a result, he won the election by 54,723 votes causing many to wonder if this election could have had very different results [10]. 


When looking at these counties on an individual level, it becomes apparent that a disproportionate amount of the polls were closed in counties with high populations of minority voters. For example, 61 percent of Warren County in Georgia is African American, and 83 percent of the polling locations in this county shut down, demonstrating how widespread this issue of disenfranchisement is across the state [11]. In comparison, counties with low minority populations, such as Fannin County, Georgia – a county whose population is 96.8 percent White – were able to maintain their voter turnout rate of above 65.4 percent [12]. Georgia is not alone in this inequity too. Texas, a prominently Republican state, has closed over 750 polling locations, many in minority-dominated neighborhoods, and does not appear to be stopping anytime soon. For instance, Dallas County underwent over 74 poll closures alone and contains a population that is 41 percent Latino and 22 percent African American. Since the Shelby County v. Holder decision, an estimated 1,000 different polling locations have closed around the U.S., with 757 of these closures occurring in counties previously protected by the federal government [13]. Many of these counties are disappearing due to the concession of power in the Shelby County v. Holder decision as they are no longer protected under Section 4(b) of the VRA.  


Voters need to feel that their voices are accurately represented in government at the local, state, and national level. Voting returns the power back into the hands of the people, holding everyone accountable for ensuring that the values we desire are prioritized by our representatives. Thus, creating barriers to citizens’ ability to vote by moving and closing polling locations is an injustice. While it is highly unlikely this ruling will be overturned due to the current makeup of the Supreme Court, there are other ways to combat voter disenfranchisement. For example, urging our state representatives to fight voter suppression on the state level and reach across the aisle to pass same-day voter registration laws are possible options. Furthermore, passing legislation to educate about the importance of voting in high schools helps emphasize the importance of voting at a young age. Finally, supporting Senate Bill S.2747 the “Freedom to Vote Act,” which addresses expanding same-day voter registration and establishes greater election security and punishment for abridging the right to vote is another effective option to pursue. 


Although Shelby County v. Holder has been overlooked by the American public, it has negatively impacted the voting rights of many on a grand scale. Due to this landmark civil rights case, minority communities, low-income voters, and voters with disabilities are all disproportionately impacted by poll closures compared to other groups. Voting serves an important role in our community and we need all voters to have an equal chance at having their voices heard. 


[1] Coleman, K. “The voting rights act of 1965.” July 20th, 2015. Congressional Research Service.

[2] “About Section 5 Of The Voting Rights Act.” November 17th, 2023. U.S. Department of Justice. https://www.justice.gov/crt/about-section-5-voting-rights-act

[3] “Shelby County v. Holder.” June 25th, 2023. Brennan Center for Justice. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/court-cases/shelby-county-v-holder

[4] Jones, Chelsea. “States are closing polling places. That hurts democracy.” June 17th, 2022. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/06/17/vra-black-voting-rights-georgia-texas-suppression/

[5] Cortina, Jeronimo, & Rottinghaus, Brandon. “The quiet revolution.” July 6th, 2020. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/epdf/10.1080/21565503.2021.1946099?needAccess=true

[6] “Car access.” 2024. National Equity Atlas. https://nationalequityatlas.org/indicators/Car_access

[7] Schur, Lisa., Ameri, Mason, & Adya, Meera. “Disability, voter turnout, and polling place accessibility.” December 29th, 2017. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/ssqu.12373
[8] “Upcoming election.” 2024. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. https://sos.ga.gov/elections-division-georgia-secretary-states-office

[9] Niesse, Mark & Thieme, Nick. “Precinct closures harm voter turnout in Georgia.” December 19th, 2023. AJC Politics. https://www.ajc.com/news/state--regional-govt--politics/precinct-closures-harm-voter-turnout-georgia-ajc-analysis-finds/11sVcLyQCHuQRC8qtZ6lYP/

[10] Briz, Andrew. “Georgia Election Results 2018.” March 5th, 2018. Politico https://www.politico.com/election-results/2018/georgia/

[11] “Democracy diverted: polling place closures and the right to vote.” The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. https://civilrights.org/democracy-diverted/

[12] “November 6, 2018 General Election.” November 19th, 2018. Georgia Secretary of State. https://results.enr.clarityelections.com/GA/Fannin/91695/Web02.222263/#/

[13] McCarthy, Tom. “More than 1,000 US polling sites closed since supreme court ruling, report finds.” September 11th, 2019. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/sep/11/us-polling-sites-closed-report-supreme-court-ruling