THE U.S. Supreme Court appears ready to tamper with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The justices will hold oral arguments Wednesday on a case brought by Shelby County, Ala., to overturn Section 5 of the law, which requires the U.S. Justice Department to approve any changes in voting laws and regulations proposed by state and local governments in nine states. Most of the states are in the South.
Section 5 has withstood legal challenges before, but court watchers predict that this Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, is inclined to jettison this section of the law as undue federal intrusion into states’ rights.
We have to step back into the 1960s to understand why Section 5 exists. Southern states were bound and determined to deny the vote to blacks and used every power at their disposal, including literacy tests, poll taxes and personal intimidation. A Southerner, President Lyndon B. Johnson, championed passage of the Voting Rights Act. In 1966, the new law was upheld by the Supreme Court as a legitimate response to the “insidious and pervasive evil” of denying black citizens the right to vote.
The Voting Rights Act empowered black voters nationwide, forever changing the political landscape in America, culminating in the election and re-election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president.
Exactly the point, say opponents of Section 5. The bad old days are long gone. Blacks’ political power extends even into the White House. Section 5 has accomplished its mission and “stigma” of federal pre-clearance should be lifted from the nine states.
Still, two things need to be said.
First: Even today, Section 5 has been used by the federal government to sidetrack voting laws that it determined would have a discriminatory effect. As late as last year, a federal judge invoked Section 5 in overturning a Texas voter-ID law.
Second: The opponents of Section 5 have a point. These are not the bad old days, when white supremacy was enforced with billy clubs at the courthouse steps. Black empowerment is here to stay. No one can turn back the tide, whether Section 5 stands or goes.
What we have today are not the crude tactics of the past. Voter suppression that targets minorities and the poor is now done with more subtlety.
It is never, ever cast in racial terms. It is done through laws designed to prevent voter fraud, though no evidence of fraud exists. It is done to save taxpayers’ money — because opening polls for four or five days before Election Day is so darned costly.
This modern version of voter suppression is not a Southern problem. It is a national problem. Pennsylvania has a voter-ID law. Ohio tried to eliminate early voting as a cost-cutting measure.
President Obama’s bipartisan commission to examine ways to improve voter laws should look at setting national standards for voter registration and verification, provisional and absentee ballots, and easy access to the polls. That would stop the thousands of political and legal battles in the states over these issues.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a bold step to address the problems of those times. We need a Voting Rights Act of 2013 to address the problems of today.