For the first time in a half-century, there won't be federal observers protecting the right to vote this fall

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Fewer Poll Monitors Could Put Voters at Risk

In 2013, when a 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the Shelby County v. Holder decision, it was widely and immediately understood that the elimination of the Section 4 formula for identifying jurisdictions guilty of past discriminatory actions would effectively kill the Section 5 requirement that such jurisdictions obtain a "preclearance" from the U.S. Justice Department before initiating changes in voting laws or procedures. But as Julie Fernandes recently pointed out at Democracy, the decision also eliminated the basis for a separate Justice Department program providing for federal election observers in Section 4 jurisdictions. So there will not be any this November, for the first time in 50 years.

The main function of these federal observers was to deter by their presence and, if necessary, report on efforts to intimidate or otherwise discourage voting by minority citizens. As Fernandes notes, it was once a pretty big deal locally, if not much reported on nationally:

In the 2004 general election, the Department of Justice sent 1,463 federal observers to monitor 55 elections in 30 jurisdictions in 14 states. This year, that number will be close to zero despite the fact that 17 states have restrictive voting laws in effect for the first time in an election cycle where the political rhetoric has been extremely racially charged at the national level.

Voting Rights Act marches 1960s and 50th anniversary with Obama

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Voting Rights Act marches 1960s and 50th anniversary with Obama
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Voting Rights Act marches 1960s and 50th anniversary with Obama
FILE - In this March 21, 1965 file photo, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his civil rights marchers cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., heading for capitol, Montgomery, during a five day, 50 mile walk to protest voting laws. The Edmund Pettus Bridge gained instant immortality as a civil rights landmark when white police beat demonstrators marching for black voting rights 50 years ago this week in Selma, Alabama. Whatâs less known is that the bridge is named for a reputed leader of the early Ku Klux Klan. Now, a student group wants to rename the bridge that will be the backdrop when President Barack Obama visits Selma on Saturday, March 7, 2015. (AP Photo/File)
MONTGOMERY, AL - MARCH 25: Bobby Simmons, an African-American young man with 'VOTE' on forehead painted with zinc oxide sun tan lotion during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Alabama Civil Rights March on March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images)
MONTGOMERY, AL - MARCH 25: Speakers platform - 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Alabama Civil Rights March Front row, left: Author James Baldwin, Front row, 2nd from left, Selma March strategist, Bayard Rustin,Front row, 3rd from left (with hat), A. Philip Randolph (founder of both the March on Washington Movement and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) - On March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images)
Tear gas fumes fill the air as state troopers, ordered by Gov. George Wallace, break up a demonstration march in Selma, Ala., on what is known as Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965. As several hundred marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin their protest march to Montgomery, state troopers violently assaulted the crowd with clubs and whips. A shocked nation watched the police brutality on television and demanded that Washington intervene and protect voter registration rights for blacks. (AP Photo)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 14: Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in between television interviews on Feb. 14, 2015. Rep. Lewis was beaten by police on the bridge on 'Bloody Sunday' 50 years ago on March 7, 1965, during an attempted march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
MONTGOMERY, AL - MARCH 25: At the head of the march, nuns, priests and civil rights leaders leave from the City of St. Jude school grounds (L-R Rev. Dominic T. 'Dom' Orsini, priest with eye patch (half view), Rev. Arthur Matott, John Lewis (head of SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Andrew Young, Sister Mary Leoline and Dr. Theodore Gill) on March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images)
Civil rights demonstrators, led by Dr Martin Luther King (5th R), civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy (5th L), John Lewis (3rd L) and other civil and religious leaders, make their way from Selma to Montgomery on March 22, 1965 in Alabama, on the third leg of the Selma to Montgomery marches. The Selma-to-Montgomery March for voting rights ended three weeks and represented the political and emotional peak of the modern civil rights movement. The first march took place on March 07, 1965 ('Bloody Sunday') when 600 civil rights marchers were attacked by state and local police. (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
View of American religious and Civil Rights leaders John Lewis (in vest) and Martin Luther King Jr (1929 - 1968) and his wife, Coretta Scott King (1927 - 2006), on the podium before the Selma to Montogomery March rally on the steps on the Alabama State Capitol, Montgomery, Alabama, March 25, 1965. Also visible is union leader A Philip Randolph (1889 - 1979) (seated at left). The Confederate and Alabama flags fly over the Capitol. (Photo by Charles Shaw/Getty Images)
State troopers swing billy clubs to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965. John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (in the foreground) is being beaten by a state trooper. Lewis, a future U.S. Congressman sustained a fractured skull. (AP Photo)
Hosea Williams, left, who led a march in Selma, Ala., leaves the scene as state troopers break up the demonstration on what is known as Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965. Behind him, at right, John Lewis of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee is put on the ground by a trooper. Lewis suffered a possible skull fracture. Supporters of black voting rights organized a march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the killing of a demonstrator by a state trooper and to improve voter registration for blacks, who are discouraged to register. (AP Photo)
US President Barack Obama walks alongside Amelia Boynton Robinson (R), one of the original marchers, the Reverend Al Sharpton (2nd R), First Lady Michelle Obama (L), and US Representative John Lewis (2nd-L), Democrat of Georgia, and also one of the original marchers, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. The event commemorates Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans, clashed with police on the bridge. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (7L), First Lady Michelle Obama (5L), former US President George W. Bush (5R), Laura Bush (6R), and US Representative John Lewis (6L), Democrat of Georgia and one of the original marchers, lead a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. US President Barack Obama rallied a new generation of Americans to the spirit of the civil rights struggle, warning their march for freedom 'is not yet finished.' In a forceful speech in Selma, Alabama on the 50th anniversary of the brutal repression of a peaceful protest, America's first black president denounced new attempts to restrict voting rights. AFP PHOTO/ SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama walks alongside Amelia Boynton Robinson (2nd-R), one of the original marchers, First Lady Michelle Obama (L), and US Representative John Lewis (2nd-L), Democrat of Georgia, and also one of the original marchers, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. The event commemorates Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans, clashed with police on the bridge. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Malia Obama, left, and sister Sasha Obama laugh together as they leave a speech by their father President Barack Obama at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday," a landmark event of the civil rights movement, Saturday, March 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
President Barack Obama speaks by the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., Saturday, March 7, 2015, for the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday," a landmark event of the civil rights movement. This weekend marks the anniversary of "Bloody Sunday,' a civil rights march in which protestors were beaten, trampled and tear-gassed by police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
President Barack Obama speaks near the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday," a landmark event of the civil rights movement, Saturday, March 7, 2015.(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
US President Barack Obama hugs US Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, one of the original marchers at Selma, during an event marking the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 2015. Obama declared Saturday on the 50th anniversary of a savagely repressed civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, that it was a global inspiration for those fighting for freedom. 'From the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine, this generation of young people can draw strength from this place, where the powerless could change the world's greatest superpower, and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom,' he said. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
People listen during take photos at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. US President Barack Obama marked the 50th anniversary of the Selma civil rights march on Saturday by condemning new attempts to restrict voting rights and demanding their protection be renewed. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama speaks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Obama marked the 50th anniversary of the Selma civil rights march on Saturday by condemning new attempts to restrict voting rights and demanding their protection be renewed. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A large group including US President Barack Obama cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Obama declared Saturday on the 50th anniversary of a savagely repressed civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, that it was a global inspiration for those fighting for freedom. 'From the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine, this generation of young people can draw strength from this place, where the powerless could change the world's greatest superpower, and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom,' he said. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
SELMA, AL - MARCH 07: (L-R) Former first lady Laura Bush, first lady Michelle Obama, U.S. president Barack Obama, U.S. Rep John Lewis (D-GA) and former U.S. president George W. Bush pray during a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights march on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Selma is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the famed civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery that resulted in a violent confrontation with Selma police and State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama speaks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Obama and the first family are in Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
The Rev. Al Sharpton speaks to supporters before President Barack Obama and others take a symbolic walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Selma, Ala. This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday,' a civil rights march in which protestors were beaten, trampled and tear-gassed by police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
The motorcade of US President Barack Obama arrives at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Obama and the first family are in Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet wellwishers after arriving on Air Force One at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, March 7, 2015. The First Family is traveling to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Sasha Obama (L), Malia Obama (2nd L), and their grandmother, Marian Robinson (C), walk away from US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama after arriving on Air Force One at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, March 7, 2015. The First Family is traveling to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
SELMA, AL - MARCH 07: People wait to hear U.S. president Barack Obama speak in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Selma is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the famed civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery that resulted in a violent confrontation with Selma police and State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama gets out of an SUV as he walks to board Air Force One prior to departing from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, March 7, 2015. The First Family is traveling to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Former US President George W. Bush arrives at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. US President Barack Obama and the first family will visit Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of US Secret Service's Counter Assault Team walks on the North lawn of the White House in Washington, DC before US President Barack Obama departure to Selma, Alabama on March 7, 2015. The US Secret Service locked down the White House press room Saturday after a loud noise was heard as reporters gathered to await Obama's departure for Selma, Alabama, a pool report said. The Washington fire department reported a fire at a food cart near the White House and that its units had extinguished it. It was unclear if the fire was the source of the noise. AFP PHOTO/YURI GRIPAS (Photo credit should read YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers block Broad Street near the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. US President Barack Obama and the first family will visit Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
The Edmund Pettus Bridge is seen during sunset on March 6, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. The march from Selma to Montgomery, which US President Barack Obama will commemorate Saturday in the southern state of Alabama, was part of the plight to end voting discrimination against African Americans a half century ago. Obama will deliver remarks at Selma's famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, where some 600 peaceful voting rights activists were attacked as they marched on March 7, 1965, a day which became known as 'Bloody Sunday.' AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama (L) look on during an event marking the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. US President Barack Obama rallied a new generation of Americans to the spirit of the civil rights struggle, warning their march for freedom 'is not yet finished.' In a forceful speech in Selma, Alabama on the 50th anniversary of the brutal repression of a peaceful protest, America's first black president denounced new attempts to restrict voting rights. AFP PHOTO/ SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
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The shadow of the Shelby County decision is getting longer and longer, it seems. Republican-controlled southern states could barely wait until the ink on the majority opinion was dry before instituting voting changes that would have once been delayed and perhaps undone by the Justice Department in the past. And now Election Day (and the early voting that happens before Election Day), long the occasion for all sorts of racist high jinks such as last-minute changes in polling places in minority neighborhoods or anonymous threats that minority voters will be scrutinized by law-enforcement officials, will happen largely out of sight except for places where civil-rights groups or civic organizations manage to replace the lost federal observers.

Congress could have fixed this problem along with others raised by Shelby County (and indeed, as the Court invited it to do), by reenacting a version of Section 4 that would survive judicial scrutiny. And there was once considerable bipartisan talk about doing just that. But lo and behold, this has not been a priority for Congress's current Republican management, so nothing has been done. And thus another layer of protection for people who struggled so long to secure the right to vote has been pulled away, inviting a return to ancient discriminatory practices. Yes, Supreme Court decisions matter.

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