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Supreme Disappointment: The creeping ease of voter discrimination

Betting on the scales of justice: you win either way.

In the years before I could vote, I grew up mostly in the South, attending the segregated public schools of the time. Minorities I knew there, mainly African-Americans, were seldom able to exercise their right to vote. They were able to vote only if they paid a poll tax or if they passed a literacy test.

I heard stories of how poll workers worked actively to suppress minority votes. Folks I knew recalled how registrars shuffled through voting rolls, neglecting to find their names. The authorities changed voting hours to make it difficult, if not impossible, to cast a vote. Districts were ludicrously drawn to dilute the strength of minorities.

The federal government was compelled to act — and it did. The result was the 1965 Voting Rights Act, one of the most effective pieces of Civil Rights legislation ever enacted. Section 4 ensured a fully functioning 15th Amendment by requiring federal preclearance of changes to voting laws in jurisdictions with a history of abridging voting rights. 

The VRA arguably was the capstone of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.  And, no less, it was the landmark achievement of one of this state’s most effective legislators, Sen. Warren G. Magnuson. Maggie, as we knew him, had been handed the daunting job of working to pass LBJ’s civil rights legislation. As was said locally, “The whole load of hay fell on Maggie.” That he and the president succeeded was nothing short of a miracle.

President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965. Photo: U.S. National Archives. 

So, when the deeply-divided U.S. Supreme Court threw out Section 4 on Tuesday, it was profoundly, grindingly disappointing. The court’s decision disrespects a linchpin of this country’s democratic ideals.

Unless Congress rewrites the act using updated data (as directed by the Supreme Court), there are fears that the mostly-Southern states governed by the Voting Rights Act will revert to their discriminatory ways, working to disenfranchise minority voters.

This is not just a rhetorical fear. The Supreme Court, while divided on the decision, did agree on one thing: discrimination in voting still exists. Without a rewritten law — something that’s likely impossible in the present Congress — minorities can no longer count on equal access to the ballot box.

Even today, states have found ways to disallow minority voting rights, not only to bar African-American voters, but Hispanic and Native American minorities. Although some of the most egregious ploys, such as the poll tax, have since been abolished and there have been increases in minority turnout, there still remain many means — subtle and otherwise — to deny voting rights.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent, cited a number of such incidents. For example, in 1995, Mississippi sought to reenact a dual voter registration system, originally enacted in 1892 to disenfranchise black voters, that would require separate registration for federal and municipal elections. And she noted that, following the 2000 Census, the City of Albany, GA, proposed a redistricting plan that the Department of Justice found to be “designed with the purpose to limit and retrogress the increased black voting strength in the city as a whole.”

Justice Ginsburg singled out other examples. She noted that, as recently as 2006, the Supreme Court found that Texas’ attempt to redraw a congressional district to reduce the strength of Latino voters bore “the mark of intentional discrimination that could give rise to an equal protection violation” and ordered the district redrawn in compliance with the VRA.

That the VRA made it possible for the Department of Justice to counter these moves through prior approval was its strength. Now, with the act gutted and its primary enforcement mechanism struck down, minority voters are at great risk of being disenfranchised.  

It is good that, since the ruling, those in the Obama administration have vowed to take swift enforcement action against discrimination, but without the main tool that made that enforcement possible, it will be difficult to ensure citizens’ free exercise of voting rights. No surprise that civil rights lawyers have condemned the ruling. So should all of us.

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