Bo Statham: Backsliding on voting rights is a slippery slope
Last June the Supreme Court knocked down the key enforcement provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). A number of Republican-controlled states immediately began efforts to impose constraints on voting, bringing back haunting memories of Jim Crow laws denying African-Americans’ right to vote. We cannot return to those shameful practices.
In 1954 I registered to vote in my hometown of Jackson, Miss. During the process, I must have been taking too long writing a required interpretation of a state constitutional provision. The clerk asked, in the local vernacular, “What you doing, son?” I told him, and he replied “Oh, never mind.” Without looking at my unfinished work, he stamped the application “accepted.”
Just as automatically, the clerk would have told an African-American registrant he or she didn’t interpret the constitutional provision correctly. Application “denied.” The literacy test at work.
As enacted, the VRA protected African-Americans’ right to vote guaranteed by the 15th Amendment. Section 5 identified states and counties with a history of denying such rights and required those jurisdictions to obtain federal approval before changing any registration or voting procedure.
The act had a dramatic effect on voting patterns in the named jurisdictions. By 2005, minorities registered to vote and cast ballots at levels surpassing those of white voters; the number of African-American office holders increased by 1,000 percent.
The recent Supreme Court decision held that states no longer have discriminatory voting tests and that discriminatory practices of 40 years ago can’t be the basis for Section 5 actions today. Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion stated, however, “At the same time, voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that.” But the court nevertheless gutted the government’s ability to enforce the VRA.
In doing so, the court substituted its judgment for that of the overwhelming majority of members of Congress who voted in 2006 to extend the VRA. That is the essence of judicial activism, by a conservative majority nonetheless.
Under the guise of preventing voter fraud, of which there is no credible evidence, the Republican states are exploiting the court’s decision to propose new restraints on registration and voting: state-issued photo IDs required to prove citizenship, no same-day registration, shorter early-voting periods and purged voter rolls. The restrictive effects of these laws fall primarily on ethnic minorities, the poor and the elderly. Not surprisingly, a majority of these groups traditionally vote Democratic.
Soon after the court’s decision, Texas enacted a state-issued photo ID requirement that had been blocked by a federal court in 2012. North Carolina quickly enacted a photo ID requirement. In all, 22 states have proposed or enacted voter-restriction measures in 2013.
In a stinging dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s first sentence reads: “In the Court’s view, the very success of the Voting Rights Act demands its dormancy.” But yesterday’s achievements in reducing discrimination do not guarantee tomorrow’s protection of voters’ rights. Congress should modify Section 5, as the court invited it to do, to bring the section into conformity with the decision.
Voting laws and procedures must be inclusive, not exclusive.
Bo Statham is a retired lawyer, congressional aide and businessman. He lives in Gardnerville and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.