The U.S. views itself as a nation progressing ever toward the ideals of justice and liberty. In many ways it’s true.
The egregious violations of civil rights that kept so many from voting are sins of another era. Long gone are poll taxes and forcing black people to recite the Declaration of Independence before being given a ballot. The bodies of those who dared register minorities to vote do not wind up in a burning car.
Yet these horrors did happen, and in living memory. There is danger in congratulating ourselves too readily on the progress we have made since. It tempts us to overlook what is being done today to deny those same civil rights.
In the case of certain members of the Supreme Court, the attitude has ossified into a brittle arrogance. Justice Antonin Scalia called the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” One can almost hear the sneer of one who believes that it is he who is the victim of discrimination.
Scalia’s remark was heard in oral arguments in the case Shelby County v. Holder. Many observers believe the conservative bloc on the high court will use a ruling in the case to gut a chief provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Shelby County, Ala. is challenging Section 5 of the act, which mandates so-called pre-clearance standards. Nine states, mostly in the South, and a handful of counties around the nation, must first receive the federal government’s permission before redrawing legislative maps, shifting polling places or enacting new rules on voter identification.
These jurisdictions must prove to the Justice Department or a panel of federal judges that planned changes will not have a discriminatory effect. Often, they can’t meet that burden.
Why do some states and localities fall under Section 5 jurisdiction but not others? Simple: a history of discrimination. Shelby County claims that this is an unfair, a way of perpetually punishing it and other entities for abuses that happened two generations ago.
Congress, in its negligence to protect voters, added weight to that contention. In reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act, Congress has repeatedly extended the pre-clearance standards (the last time in 2006) but has refused to update the formulas that determine which states and localities fall under the law.
New approach to old tricks
In light of changing demographics and new voting problems in states not covered by Section 5, states like Alabama believe they see a loophole to argue before the Supreme Court. The conservative justices seem to be obliging.
Are citizens in the South more racist than citizens in the North? demanded Chief Justice John Roberts of the government’s counsel.
Does it matter? What matters is that the right to vote is protected for all citizens. Changes in voting standards and practices, when intended to discriminate or when they do so unintentionally, must not be allowed.
And the evidence is clear that recent changes to voting laws in many states have worked to suppress the vote. A study released last year by the Brennan Center for Justice found that one in 10 Americans didn’t possess the government-issued photo identification required under new laws in 10 states. Alabama was among those states, along with four others covered under Section 5: Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.
It’s a new generation, a new approach, but these states are up to their old tricks.
Who is behind the measures that make it harder for the elderly, the poor, black people and Latinos to vote? Republican-dominated legislatures. Their efforts are hardly secret.
In 2011, the Texas Legislature drew districts for four new House seats, gained because the state’s population increased by about 4 million — 65 percent of that gain accounted for by Latinos. It designed the new districts in such a way as to make it unlikely that minority communities would elect their candidate of choice. A federal district court deemed this intentional discrimination and blocked Texas’ redistricting proposal under Section 5.
The politicians and pressure groups behind these measures claim that they are cleaning up voting rolls, protecting against voter fraud. They present their efforts as a noble.
But what they point to as voter fraud is often actually problems in databases. Those problems need to be addressed, insignificant as they almost always are. But they must not be used as pretexts to place greater burdens for some groups of voters.
Today’s methods of voter suppression may not be as blatant or bloody as they were in the 1950s, but the hoped-for outcomes are similar.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer accurately summed up the status of voter discrimination during the oral arguments.
“It’s an old disease,” he said. “It’s gotten a lot better. A lot better. But it’s still there.”
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Email: email@example.com.