Passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a milestone in the civil rights movement, and it changed the face of government by making it easier for black voters to cast their ballots, and for black candidates to be elected to political office. That milestone crumbled a bit under last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring a key part of that law unconstitutional.
The justices, in a 5-4 decision, declared the section of the law that required certain jurisdictions to obtain approval for changes to voting districts and voting laws unconstitutional. Among other things, the ruling opens the door for states to impose a voter ID requirement and to pass other laws aimed at keeping people away from the polls, such as cutting early voting or barring it on Sundays, when many black congregations help their members get to the polls. That is not good news for advocates who believe that democracy is practiced best when voter participation increases, but it is also a challenge for them to make it a priority to help remove obstacles for any eligible voters to exercise their constitutional right to cast a ballot.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote for the majority, is correct that a lot has changed in the nearly 50 years since passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act, whose historical impact has been a huge positive for America. But he also acknowledged that racism is still pervasive in our society. “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” Roberts wrote.
That technically leaves the door open for Congress to update the section of the law that required preclearance of voting changes. That is what should happen, but the current Congress has neither the will nor the political stomach to take on what would promise to be a divisive issue. Unless that dynamic changes, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is dead.
The 5-4 majority has a point that the formula used to determine which states, counties and townships require approval is outdated. One news story pointed out, for example, that places such as Georgia, where at one time just 27 percent of black voters were registered in 1965, now boasts a higher voter registration among blacks than among whites.
The argument for updated reviews under the Voting Rights Act — maybe requiring approval for all states — is that racism still exists, and that legislatures in many states, backed by well-funded, out-of-state special interests, are actively attempting to pass laws that make it harder for certain groups, especially young people, poor minorities and the elderly poor, to vote.
Now the Justice Department will be unable to review those laws, or to set parameters on what is acceptable and what is not. Still, much of the law remains intact, as does the overriding premise that the right to vote is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and cannot be denied based on arbitrary factors or political whims.
The question is how badly removing its front teeth cripple practical enforcement of the original law.
The New Bern Sun Journal