The Supreme Court dealt voting rights a severe setback this week by effectively killing a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that allowed the U.S. Department of Justice to review and approve changes to voting laws in nine states and other jurisdictions — including Monroe and four other counties in Florida — before they could take effect.
Already, some of these states are dusting off previously banned efforts to limit voter participation, now that they are free to act with virtual impunity. Texas, for example, announced triumphantly just hours after Tuesday’s decision that it would put into effect a voter I.D. measure that the Justice Department had previously blocked.
Expect to see much more of the same in the coming months.
Of this there should be no doubt: The impact of the ruling will be to weaken the rights of voters at a time when politically driven efforts to suppress voter registration and turnout have increased in GOP-leaning states all across the country.
Voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting (which led to embarrassingly long lines in Florida last year), extreme gerrymandering of congressional districts — all these tactics and more have become more evident in recent elections. The court’s ruling means there’s no cop on the beat to prevent these malicious actions, encouraging those intent on curtailing voting rights to do as they please.
“Voting discrimination still exists,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the majority opinion. “No one doubts that.” But then he said that the formula by which the federal government decides which jurisdictions are covered by the law is outdated because it is “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”
The chief justice’s analysis may be right, but his solution — to reject the formula and thus render the preclearance provision toothless — throws out the baby with the bath water. Congress, he suggested, should update the formula, deciding which jurisdictions should be covered and under what criteria.
Really? Anyone who believes today’s lawmakers are capable of doing so needs to get out a little more often. A hyperpartisan Congress hijacked in the House by the tea party and bitterly divided along political lines, a Congress that twists itself into knots and puts the nation’s credit rating at risk just to pass a budget, is hardly likely to manage something as politically charged as voting rights.
Regardless of how old the data is, Congress extended the Voting Rights Act in 2007 after holding what House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., called “one of the most extensive considerations of any piece of legislation that the United States Congress has dealt with” during his 27 years in Congress. The House passed the extension by a vote of 390-33. The Senate vote was 98-0.
How can a court majority whose members say they believe in “judicial restraint” wind up blithely ignoring the actions of Congress, which is granted exclusive and explicit authority to ensure that the promises of the 15th Amendment are fulfilled?
Undoubtedly, the nation has made enormous strides in race relations since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. But much of that progress is the result of the law and vigilant enforcement by the Justice Department.
Without it, Justice Department efforts to preserve voting fairness will be weakened. The ultimate tragedy arising from Tuesday’s ruling would be to reopen the wounds that the Voting Rights Act sought to heal.