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 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Keane thinks that sort of argument, which favors maintaining even outdated provisions of the law because there is no potential for fixing them, “too quickly gives up on our ability to govern ourselves.”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.
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