Voting Rights Act debate misses larger civic opportunities

It’s time to embrace practical voting reforms

US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts caused a civil rights brouhaha last month by citing a seeming disparity between voter registration and turnout rates among African-Americans living in Massachusetts and Mississippi. 

In a case now before the court, Shelby vs. Holder, Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is at risk of being struck down as unconstitutional. The provision requires that many Southern states “preclear” any election changes with the federal government before they are implemented as law.  Liberal-minded voter activists widely agree that Section 5 has been an effective cudgel over the years to beat back racial gerrymandering and voter intimidation efforts that discriminate against racial minorities. 

In arguing against the continued relevance of Section 5, Roberts made a misguided reference to black voting rates in Massachusetts and Mississippi, suggesting that because voting rates for blacks are closer to those of whites in the Magnolia State than in the Bay State, there is now no need for the preclearance clause.  Because the overall electoral tenor of the nation is now virtually race-neutral, his argument suggested, the legal rationale for Section 5 is unfounded.

The chief justice’s comments set off a firestorm among civil rights advocates and political bloggers across the Internet. It even prompted a sharp response from the usually taciturn Massachusetts secretary of state, William Galvin, who called the comments a “slur” and “disturbing.” Galvin said Roberts’s statements were misleading in making it appear that Massachusetts is worse than Mississippi in terms of election turnout parity between blacks and whites. Galvin took issue in particular with Roberts making the claim as a way of attempting to devalue the efficacy of Section 5.  

Missing in the heated exchanges about Roberts’s assertion is broader discussion of the overall impact of the Voting Rights Act, including how the law might be enhanced with new legislation, especially in light of woefully low overall voting rates in the US compared with those in other industrialized nations.  What new policies are available to support or enhance current election laws such as the Voting Rights Act? In Massachusetts, a number of democracy-enhancing options should be embraced by Galvin as well as by Gov. Deval Patrick and state lawmakers.

Universal Voter Registration.  This law would register each verifiable citizen in Massachusetts to vote upon turning 18.  Registration would be automatic and require no effort by citizens.  The use of comprehensive databases across various sectors of government would make this effort relatively easy. Market research companies have been creating consumer database profiles for decades to exploit marketplace advantages.  Government can follow suit on this innovation by creating fully registered voting populations.

Universal Civics Education in Public Schools.  Civic literacy in Massachusetts’s public education is only partly realized.  While the issue of requiring civic courses in public schools has gained popularity in the state in recent years, no mandate for civics education in middle and high schools yet exists. Scholarship is clear on the impact of comprehensive civics instruction in schools: The more a young person is educated about civic rites and responsibilities, the more likely that citizen will engage in community life, including voting.

Alternative Voting Days.  Why Tuesday? Tuesday voting in the United States is a vestige of our agrarian past.  With farmers travelling to the cities to trade perishable crops and pay taxes in November, it was deemed the best day to give male property owners the opportunity to vote. Life today is considerably more complex than in the late 1700s. Allowing voters to exercise the franchise over a weekend or vote directly by mail over extended periods of time will increase voter turnout and strengthen our civic infrastructure.

Meet the Author

Debate about the relevance of racial disparities in turnout between voters in disparate states such as Massachusetts and Mississippi distracts us from important questions about how to increase the reach of democracy in America. The Voting Rights Act should stay intact.  At the same time, we need to embrace new reforms that will increase electoral participation among all citizens.

Kevin C. Peterson is founder of The New Democracy Coalition, a Boston-based organization focused on civic literacy, civic policy, and electoral justice.