Scholars may debate the constitutional logic of the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder that gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but what is beyond dispute has been the unseemliness of the political rush soon after the opinion was issued. Just 24 hours after the court struck down the formula used to determine which states and counties require federal clearance in advance for proposed changes in voting and districting policies—a mechanism meant to prevent race-based voting discrimination—legislators in five states formerly subject to preclearance pushed through so-called voting reforms whose net effect will be to limit the ability of African-American and other citizens from minority communities to vote.
The court’s decision on June 25 lays the foundation for a renewal of electoral gamesmanship. Members of Congress charged with enforcing the 15th Amendment’s injunctions against race-based voter discrimination will be forced into new rounds of legislative “whack a mole” to tap down sporadic innovations in voter suppression—precisely the iniquitous and exhausting conditions that propelled the extraordinary federal intervention established by the Voting Rights Act in the first place.
The abrupt activation of voter identification laws that had been suspended while the court considered the arguments in Shelby and the sudden enthusiasm for the termination of early or extended voting schedules in tightly contested Southern states make a mockery of the judges’ argument that history and social progress has obviated the V.R.A.’s preclearance formula. Texas is now enforcing the most rigorous voter I.D. requirements in the nation. Texas legislators are also restoring Congressional redistricting maps that, according to a federal court ruling in August 2012 that rejected the gerrymandering, showed a “race-conscious method to manipulate not simply the Democratic vote but, more specifically, the Hispanic vote.”
In his majority opinion in Shelby, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. allowed that the problem of contemporary voter discrimination is real but claimed that any reauthorization of the V.R.A. needed to take into account “current conditions”—that discrimination is not as pervasive and flagrant as it was in 1965. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that the court should have considered preclearance itself as a “condition” that successfully prevented voter discrimination; invalidating it is like “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
The judges’ supreme confidence in the unalterable progress of voting rights is misplaced. Now it is up to state and national legislators to fill the regulatory void opened up by the court’s decision. Many Republican-controlled state legislatures have been responding to the nation’s changing demographics with tortured Congressional districting and new barriers to voting. Rather than make a case to convert voters, these legislators prefer to establish obstacles to voting, cynically promoting voter I.D. laws that “fix” the negligible to nonexistent problem of voter fraud. The revived deployment of such strategies suggests that the problem of racial discrimination in voting has hardly been made to evaporate by improving social conditions and the political empowerment of minority communities.
The Senate has scheduled hearings to review its legislative options toward a restoration of the V.R.A., but the leadership of the Republican-controlled House has shown little interest in revising the act. Some members of Congress have even publicly challenged some provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It may be fair to wonder if, abetted by the current court, some legislators will pursue other policies whose net effect will be to turn back history.
The church may have at times worked at cross-purposes in the early days of the U.S. civil rights movement, but by the time of the Voting Rights Act, it had come to stand firmly with the courageous men and women who were putting themselves on the line in an effort that would change the nation. Since then, the church has been a consistent enemy of racial discrimination and a supporter of the V.R.A. and its goals.
Responding to the decision on the V.R.A., Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., and Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Tex., speaking on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, “We urge policymakers to quickly come together to reaffirm the bipartisan consensus that has long supported the Voting Rights Act and to move forward new legislation that assures modern and effective protections for all voters so that they may exercise their right and moral obligation to participate in political life.”
In defense of the nation’s civil rights achievements and remembering the many who made so many sacrifices in that valiant struggle, Congress should heed that call.