Voting rights ruling leaves protections in doubt

Did the sky fall with last week’s Supreme Court ruling invalidating a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act?

You would certainly have thought so judging by some of the initial reaction. Civil rights icon John Lewis declared that the court had “stuck a dagger into the heart” of a law. The decision marked “a step backwards in the march towards equal rights,” said the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Using more measured language but still expressing deep disappointment, President Obama said the decision “upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.”

But not everyone thinks the court got it wrong — or that the ruling must inevitably lead to less federal oversight of voting rights. Writing in Sunday’s Globe, Tom Keane says the court “in large measure got it right when it struck down portions of the Voting Rights Act. I know; thinking this makes me an awful person. But the underlying facts justifying the law’s toughest and most controversial measures are now almost 40 years old.”

The ruling struck down a section of the law that delineated jurisdictions — mostly Southern states — that had to obtain “preclearance” from federal authorities before making any adjustments to voting procedures, including matters seemingly as minor as moving the location of a polling place. The provision provided a bulwark against the nefariously discriminatory practices that once were rampant in the South.

The problem, according to Keane? “Some states that were bad actors back then are no longer. Other states have changed and now deserve more scrutiny. And while it was discrimination against black voters that motivated the law in the first place, today’s worry, perhaps even more so, is discrimination against brown.”

The court has left it to Congress to update the law to, in Keane’s words, “reflect today’s realities.” One of today’s biggest realities, however, is partisan paralysis in Washington, which has many believing Congress will do no such thing. “The Supreme Court invited Congress to rewrite the formula, which has a disingenuous ring. The justices know full well that lawmakers, who failed to expand the coverage formula in 2006, are extremely unlikely to do it now,” opined the Times editorial page.

Keane thinks that sort of argument, which favors maintaining even outdated provisions of the law because there is no potential for fixing them, “too quickly gives up on our ability to govern ourselves.”  The Atlantic’s Molly Baldwin agrees, pointing out that the law was reauthorized by Congress — unanimously in the Senate and by a wide margin in House — just seven years ago.

Keane acknowledges one big reason why it won’t be nearly as easy to fix the law as it was to reauthorize it: In 2006, and before that in 1982, Congress essentially punted on the issue dropping from the law areas that no longer merited “preclearance” oversight, or taking up the even more controversial issue of adding new places where such scrutiny might now be warranted. But he still thinks it may be possible to devise a new formula, perhaps using an objective measure such as a 10 percent disparity between white and minority voting rates in a county.

“We need to remind people that there are legislators from both parties who care deeply about protecting the right to vote,” Ball writes. “For civil-rights advocates, the worst outcome would be to give up the fight for a new Voting Rights Act before it’s even begun.”

She points to Wisconsin Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee during the last reauthorization and who said in a statement last week that the Voting Rights Act remains “vital to America’s commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in the electoral process.”

Reassuring words — except Sensenbrenner no longer helms judiciary. That task now falls to Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte, who was decidedly noncommittal yesterday when pressed by CNN on the question of whether his committee will act this year to update the law so that it passes muster with the new court ruling. “We don’t know yet,” he said.

                                                                                                                                     –MICHAEL JONAS

BEACON HILL

The Patrick administration releases a regional development plan for the Merrimack Valley, targeting areas both for development and preservation, the Eagle-Tribune  reports.

The Globe offers a full-column editorial calling on Beacon Hill lawmakers to end their decades-long stranglehold on liquor licenses and allow Boston to grant liquor licenses as city officials see fit. The paper says the practice of restricting license availability is crushing revitalization efforts in city neighborhoods. The editorial echoes a Globe column from last week by CommonWealth’s Paul McMorrow

With the special Senate election in the rearview mirror, attention now turns to the 2014 gubernatorial race, as dissected by Jon Keller and the Globe’s Jim O’Sullivan. The Herald speculates that the state GOP will pour its efforts into recapturing the governor’s office, rather than taking a hard run at the US Senate. Rep. Dan Winslow flirts publicly with a run for attorney general.

The head of the state housing authority association tells a federal judge he was “duped” by former Chelsea Housing Authority head Michael McLaughlin. Banker & Tradesman reports that legislation consolidating the state’s housing authority bureaucracy — filed in the wake of McLaughlin’s arrest — has stalled on Beacon Hill.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Fall River officials are defending their actions after they forced the eviction of 41 tenants from two buildings health officials condemned after the city shut off water when the landlord failed to pay $500,000 in back taxes.

The Somerset School Committee voted to reappoint the incumbent member who tied with a challenger in the election that was declared a deadlock by a judge after a disputed ballot was tossed.

The Herald looks at Boston’s failed Wi-Fi push.

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse is at the center of a kerfuffle over residency requirements for a number of his opponents in the fall mayoral election.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

New documents suggest the US was eavesdropping on its European allies, the Guardian reports.

Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis vows to fight on against Gov. Rick Perry’s efforts to pass a bill clamping down on abortion, the Dallas Morning News reports.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who dated President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, called an end to the bromance when he told reporters over the weekend, “I don’t want him to be president” because “he can’t figure out how to lead.”

NATION

In the deadliest day for US firefighters in 80 years, 19 firefighters were killed yesterday battling wildfires in Arizona.

North Carolina is the new Wisconsin.

Elena Kagan and Antonin Scalia like shooting animals together.

ELECTIONS

Suffolk DA Dan Conley continues his fundraising lead in the Boston mayor’s race.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Lobster prices have dropped as low as $5 a pound in the area because of a glut of the crustaceans from Canada, an influx that is a boon for shellfish lovers but a bust for local lobstermen who have to compete with the lower prices. The Wall Street Journal examines bids to glam up so-called “trash fish” like blood cockle and pollock in light of strict new federal catch limits.

The median income for employees at nonprofit foundations rose about 2.1 percent last year, essentially keeping pace with inflation.

EDUCATION

MetroWest school districts grapple with the high costs of special education.

Boston is facing a steep dropoff in the demand for high school seats in its school system, a trend being accelerated by rising demand for charter school seats. The school department estimates it is costing more than $8 million a year to maintain nearly 3,000 empty high school seats.

HEALTH & HEALTH CARE

An affecting tale from Western Mass. about the scourge of heroin addiction taking hold there, and the story of one attempt at redemption and reconciliation.

The advent of gambling means the problem of gambling addiction is high on state’s agenda.

TRANSPORTATION

Bikes are taking off.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Brockton area officials are concerned about a looming mosquito threat because of the recent wet weather in the region.