Shifting Sovereignty and Voter ID: African American Voting Rights in Alabama

Posted: 26 Oct 2015

See all articles by Lindsey Smith

Lindsey Smith

University of Alabama, Students

Date Written: November 1, 2015


Chief Justice Roberts held that because two towns that had been sites of mass resistance to the Civil Rights movement now both had black mayors, this showed evidence of the success of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In Shelby County v. Holder, Shelby County, Alabama challenged Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Shelby County. Section 4 determined which states must have changes to voting laws cleared prior by the federal government and Section 5 contained the current formula for determining states covered in Section 4. With this decision the Supreme Court effectively ended pre-clearance. This court case equated successful implementation of the Voting Rights Act as an indicator that the United States was now post-racial. This Supreme Court decision calls into question the type of social contract that exists between the black citizens and the state. By effectively removing the power of pre-clearance, the State has removed the ability of the black citizen to be equally protected and allowed to participate in the democratic process.

This paper will examine the effect this decision will have on the state of Alabama. Considering the recent passage of strict Voter ID laws and the closing of license issuing offices in the state, the democratic process has failed the citizens of the state of Alabama and particularly minority citizens. Using a theoretical framework that interrogates the way in which power is enforced on the bodies of citizens, this paper will look specifically at the way in which the Supreme Court exercised power over the black bodies in Alabama. The reaction and changes occurring in the state following the decision illuminate the power of racial politics in the state as well as the bodies that are subjected to the use of power.

Historically, the democratic process has relied on the existence and assumptions about the social contract. The relationship between the citizenry and the social contract is seen as mediated by an acting Sovereign. This actor is often identified as the judicial system, the President, or other actors of the state. I plan to build off of the concepts of Berda and Shenhav to see the acting Sovereign not as a fixed or easily identifiable actor, but instead an intentionally fluid and complicated manifestation, a phantom sovereign. This phantom sovereign is particularly disenfranchising to people of color. Using a conception of a phantom sovereign, it will create a different theoretical approach to critique and understand democracy with particular attention to people of color’s experiences. In order to interrogate the theoretical implications for the practice of citizenship, this research will identify key examples in Alabama to discuss agency within communities and the democratic response.

The goal of my research is to reevaluate the understanding and practice of the democratic process, as it is understood within a history of political theory. But, beyond that, I plan for my research to intervene into political conversations engaging other marginalized communities. If it is possible to rethink the democratic process, perhaps it will lead to a better understanding of dissonance that exists between marginalized communities and representative actors of the State. The limiting abilities of the democratic process can often overwhelm communities and to resist is a political act worth investigating for larger application. The narrative of a post-racial politics in the United States must be challenged or it will continue to disenfranchise citizens who have been historically most vulnerable.

Keywords: voting rights, Alabama, black politics, african american voting rights, sovereign, social contract

Suggested Citation

Smith, Lindsey, Shifting Sovereignty and Voter ID: African American Voting Rights in Alabama (November 1, 2015). 2016 National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS) Annual Meeting, Available at SSRN:

Lindsey Smith (Contact Author)

University of Alabama, Students ( email )

101 Paul W. Bryant Dr.
Box 870382
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
United States

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