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“Protection Of Minority Voting Rights Is A Thing Of The Past”: SCOTUS Voting Rights Decision Hurls Nation Back To Its Tragic Past

In a 5-4 decision along the ideological lines one might expect, the Supreme Court today cut out the heart and soul of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

While preserving the purpose and the intent of the momentous civil rights law—as set forth in Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (“VRA”) which proclaims that no American can be denied the right to vote based on their race or gender­—the Court struck down the sole method of enforcing the intent of the law. They accomplished this by declaring Section 4 of the Act, which sets forth the formula for determining which state and local governments must seek federal approval of any and all changes to their voting laws before placing the same into effect, to be unconstitutional.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts stated,

“In 1965, the states could be divided into two groups: those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those without those characteristics,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “Congress based its coverage formula on that distinction. Today the nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.”

In other words, it is the opinion of the Court’s majority that the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act worked so well that to continue enforcement under the existing scheme is unconstitutional.

The logic of the majority represents a tragic irony given that the ruling comes at a time when minority voting rights are, once again, under severe attack as state governments under GOP control seek to rig the game in an effort to overcome the demographic and racial shifts in the electorate. These changes dramatically improve the opportunities for Democrats to gain elected office—particularly when it comes to the presidency.

Indeed, it was the Voting Rights Act that was at the heart of successful efforts to stop states attempting to cut back on early voting hours and instituting voter identification laws that would have dramatically affected minority voter turnout during the 2012 election. Now, the opportunity to rely on the law to stop future efforts to curtail minority voting will have vanished in a 5-4 decision.

Not all that many years ago, I might have seen the logic in the majority’s opinion.

A review of registration and voting data in the state and local governments that have been—up until today—required to gain federal approval of their voting and registration laws before placing them into effect, revealed that major steps forward had taken place as a result of the 1965 law. Still, Congress saw fit to continue the formula set forth in Section 4 of the VRA when they renewed the law in 2006 without making changes to which states and local governments are affected—a Congressional decision that rests at the very heart of the Supreme Court majority’s displeasure.

The Court had previously warned Congress of what might come if they failed to make adjustments to the law based on recognizing the advancements made in states still subject to federal oversight. In 2009, the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of the 2006 extension of the Voting Rights Act in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder. In that case, the Court avoiding ruling on the central issue—the constitutionality of all or part of the VRA. However, the majority went out of their way to highlight their concern that Congress was relying on old data collected in 1974 when calculating which state and local governments would continue to be subject to federal approval of local voter laws.

Congress never got around to reviewing the law, based on the Supreme Court’s admonition, leading to today’s regressive decision.

At the time of the Municipal Utility decision, I saw some value in the Court’s approach. While it remained—and remains—essential that the VRA continue in full force and effect to protect the voting rights of all Americans, it made sense that data constantly be reviewed by Congress so as to grant more sovereign authority to states and local governments who may now adequately protect voting rights. But it remains equally as important that the federal government hold onto the opportunity to clamp down on these governmental units should they return to old habits.

But then came the efforts over the past few election cycles to suppress the vote of minorities in various states throughout the nation. In each instance, the drive to limit access to the polls came in states where the government was fully under the control of Republicans looking to improve the chances of electoral victory in the 2012 presidential election.

We all recall what happened in states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio where difficult and unreasonable voter ID laws, or dramatically shortened early voting hours and other voting opportunities were suddenly legislated into existence.

The State of Texas—a state subject to the requirements of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act—has now produced the most restrictive voter ID law in the country but has been unable to implement the law as the Feds have yet to approve it. The same is the case in Virginia where an onerous voter ID law has been signed by the Governor but held up pending federal approval as they too are subject to the enforcement provisions of the VRA.

Federal protections of minorities in these states are now a thing of the past. Indeed, the state of Texas has already announced that, based on today’s Supreme Court ruling, they no longer have to wait for federal approval of their voter ID law and that the law will go into effect immediately.

Seeing this happen makes it all too clear that many of these states have not changed their ways since the day President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law and that the only thing that has protected minorities in these states during the years following 1965 has been the very part of the Voting Rights Act that has now been invalidated.

The Supreme Court got it wrong. By not recognizing that the success of the Voting Rights Act enforcement provisions was based on the existence of the enforcement provisions, the Court has condemned the nation to relive some of the worst days and inequities in our history.

While today’s decision does leave the door open for Congress to take on the issue and re-craft Section 4 with an eye to current data, does anyone actually believe that this will happen with the GOP in control of the House of Representatives?

Not likely—or at least not likely until we have a federal government fully back in the hands of the Democratic Party.

For anyone out there who believes that midterm elections are not particularly exciting or worth your time, the stakes of the 2014 midterms just increased dramatically. The nation took a giant step backwards today—a misstep that can only be corrected by the return of the House of Representatives to Democratic control and retaining the Democratic majority in the Senate. As a result, while today’s Supreme Court decision makes this a very sad day in the advancement of the nation, it may be just the kick in the pants Americans require to get out of the house and down to the voting booth in November, 2014.

Let’s hope so.

A lot of Americans suffered a great deal—some making the ultimate sacrifice—to make the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a reality.

We should not let them down now.


By: Rick Ungar, Op-Ed Contributor, Forbes, June 25, 2013

June 26, 2013 Posted by | Civil Rights, SCOTUS | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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