Who Needs The Voting Rights Act, Anyway?

On a day that ushered in what is seen by many as one of the biggest setbacks for the civil rights movement in many years, with the Supreme Court decision to strike down key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, we can at least take some small solace in the principled and well-argued dissent, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and read by her from the bench.

Yes, it was exactly the usual suspects that you would expect to vote down key VRA provisions.
Yes, it was exactly the usual suspects that you would expect to vote down key VRA provisions.

First, an overview of the day’s events and the court ruling, courtesy of The Guardian:

The US supreme court struck down 48-year-old protections for minority voters in states with a history of racial discrimination on Tuesday, in a decision lamented by campaigners who argued that it gutted the most important civil rights law ever passed by Congress.

The conservative-dominated court argued the act had largely served its purpose in encouraging equal access to the ballot box and said it was unconstitutional to continue singling out southern states for extra scrutiny without new legislation to determine signs of ongoing discrimination.

For nearly 50 years, the law forced certain, mostly southern states to seek permission from federal authorities in Washington for any changes to electoral rules, such as introducing literacy tests to reduce voter registration among minority groups.

However, chief justice John Roberts ruled on Tuesday that although there were some signs of continued racial discrimination, it was no longer sufficient to justify legal discrimination against the southern states caught up by the rules.

This has been a long-cherished goal for many conservatives, and we are already seeing some states (the usual suspects) moving almost immediately to implement new laws that had previously been stymied by section 5 of the Act.

As a general and broad supporter of localism, limited government and states rights, I am naturally sceptical about laws and provisions that make local laws subject to review, alteration or invalidation by an external authority. However, in the case of the Voting Rights Act, specifically the part that makes local authorities with a history of voter discrimination seek approval for changes to voting laws, I believe that the “lesser of two evils” doctrine clearly takes effect. So egregious were the measures used in an attempt to suppress the black and minority vote in many areas, and so important is the ability for all citizens to be able to participate in the democratic process, that a small infringement on local democracy in terms of oversight of local voting laws seems preferable to the larger threat to democracy of risking the exclusion of those same minorities once again.

Of course, the conservative activism which has become an increasingly prevalent hallmark of the Roberts court is unable to see nuance or shades of grey, dealing – as do most ideologues – purely in black and white.

Unfortunately, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg notes in her dissent, numerous instances of blatant attempts to suppress the vote persist to this very day, and are by no means a distant relic of the Jim Crow era. MotherJones summarises some of the more recent examples in a “hall of shame” from Ginsburg’s dissent:

  • “Following the 2000 Census, the City of Albany, Georgia, proposed a redistricting plan that DOJ found to be ‘designed with the purpose to limit and retrogress the increased black voting strength…in the city as a whole.'”
  • “In 2001, the mayor and all-white five-member Board of Aldermen of Kilmichael, Mississippi, abruptly canceled the town’s election after ‘an unprecedented number’ of AfricanAmerican candidates announced they were running for office. DOJ required an election, and the town elected its first black mayor and three black aldermen.”
  • “In 1993, the City of Millen, Georgia, proposed to delay the election in a majority-black district by two years, leaving that district without representation on the city council while the neighboring majority white district would have three representatives…DOJ blocked the proposal. The county then sought to move a polling place from a predominantly black neighborhood in the city to an inaccessible location in a predominantly white neighborhood outside city limits.”
  • “In 2004, Waller County, Texas, threatened to prosecute two black students after they announced their intention to run for office. The county then attempted to reduce the avail ability of early voting in that election at polling places near a historically black university.”

It rather beggars belief that Chief Justice John Roberts and his fellow justices in the majority opinion can look at a political landscape still full of examples such as those shown here, and conclude that the problem is anywhere close to being solved. Or, as Ginsburg puts it:

Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.


The full dissenting opinion can be read here.