Save Voting Rights

Sister Mary Antona Ebo, of the Sisters of St. Mary in St. Louis, talks to the media about black voting rights during a civil rights protest in Selma, Ala., on March 10, 1965.

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.

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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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Leonard Villa
5 years 3 months ago
How does voter ID suppress anybody's right to vote? You need an ID for many things in this country does that requirement suppress anybody's right to take part in the activity: picking up mail, banking, driving etc. Given all the voter fraud that goes on with even the dead voting and multiple votes voter ID seems rather needed. You have a dim view if not condescending view of African-Americans and other minorities if you think they cannot register and get a voters ID card. I am sure they get drivers licenses and other ID's if they work in security, hospitals etc.
ed gleason
5 years 3 months ago
As a poll inspector for many years, the idea that anyone would commit a felony to get a vote in for the usual stooges up for election is a paranoia of the right wing mentality. Most times less than half of the registered voters go to polls anyway and another 30 percent never even register. Florida has a polling place for 6000 voters and another in the same district for 68,000 voters.. Guess which one is for minority voters. The SC justices have no trouble with lines at their gated communities either.
John Adams
5 years 3 months ago
It happened to me. Someone came to Vermont to prove that voter fraud could happen or does happen. It was at a primary. He called my elderly mother ahead of the event and somehow had information on me that satisfied the registrar. Funny, he learned that I vote absentee and had an address in Quebec. He filmed it to make his point and used a French accent (which I do not have). Once I had been informed of the violation, I contacted the town clerk. She mentioned that, in her many years, they had not had any violations and this was the first. Is voter fraud real or manufactured, as in this case.
Frank Bergen
5 years 3 months ago
I will assume naiveté on the part of the commenter who asserts that voter fraud is prevalent and that it is a simple thing to acquire the ID required by some jurisdictions in order to cast a vote. Unless I'm mistaken, Chief Justice Roberts makes no such assertions. He and the court's majority are content to say that the factual situations have changed since the last time the criteria for the requirement of preclearance were last modified. In fact my state of Arizona has required more documentation of a person who registers to vote using the state's application than is called for on the federal form. And the courts have ruled that the federal requirements are sufficient. The prevalence of voter fraud is an urban legend which depends on endless restatement, preferably with a straight face, to become 'fact' in the minds of those who'd like to believe it to be true. Why should we not assume that every citizen who has reached the age of 18 has a right to vote in local, state and federal elections and perhaps make a Social Security card with a photo be the sole ID required to cast a vote? This suggestion has been made by Norman Ornstein -- no raving leftist -- in a Washington Post op ed piece on July 18, 2013.
Tom Fields
5 years 3 months ago
The "editors" are naive. I have worked at polling places and I would never accept interference with the right to vote. It is very easy to go to a DMV and obtain an ID. Many organizations and individuals are willing to help people get ID's and get to the polls. It is amazingly easy to falsify items like utility bills--as was stated by a Democrat campaign manager in Arlington VA. Ginsburg and Holder said nothing when armed "black panthers" intimidated voters. The African American vote was at an all time high in the last presidential election. It is time to return constitutional rights to the States

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