Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Free Voting Rights Act from 1965 numbers

The reaction to today's Supreme Court ruling on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was more interesting and volatile than the ruling itself. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg declared that today's 5-4 majority ruling amounted to the "demolition" of the Voting Rights Act. She takes hyperbole to new heights.

What the Supreme Court ordered Congress to revise, while leaving untouched the remainder of the act, was Section 5 of the 1965 act. That section requires certain states and portions of states that had a history of voting rights violations in 1965, submit to the U.S. Justice Department any change to their voting laws. That means that the Election Board in Wilson, N.C. (one of the covered jurisdictions), cannot move a polling place around the corner without gaining pre-clearance from the Justice Department. Justice has 90 days to respond and can extend that deadline for another 90 days. That can be a serious impediment to timely decision-making, such as when a building housing a polling site burns or is demolished or is closed for renovation.

But that's not the biggest problem with Section 5. The law establishes one voting law for some states and another for other states, thereby limiting state sovereignty and denying "equal protection of the laws" for citizens of those states. Such unequal treatment might have been justified in 1965, when some citizens were being denied voting rights on the basis of their race. But America has changed in the past 48 years, and minority voting power has grown exponentially, even in those states that are still required to submit any change in voting place or method to the Justice Department in advance.

The most recent renewal of the Voting Rights Act did not alter the formula for determining what jurisdictions will be subject to the provisions of Section 5. That formula is still stuck in 1964, a time when few black citizens were registered to vote and black elected officials were unheard of in many locales. Even in cities with black mayors and counties with black county chairmen, the Voting Rights Act considers these jurisdictions racially biased to the degree that federal pre-clearance is necessary. Today's election officials and public officers in the covered jurisdictions, many of them African-American, are presumed guilty of voting discrimination based on actions that took place before many of them were born.

Today's court ruling requires Congress to update the application formula under Section 5 and base it on contemporary standards of voter turnout, voter registration, and acts of voter suppression or intimidation. Those who care about voting rights today, rather than in 1965, should welcome this opportunity to see that the Voting Rights Act enforcement is applied where it is most needed today.

No comments: