The Supreme Court struck down a core component of the 1965 Voting Rights Act this week, ruling in a 5–4 vote that Congress can no longer require nine mostly Southern states to get federal approval before changing their voting procedures. Under the act, a keystone of civil-rights-era legislation, jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination had been required to have any change in their election laws or practices pre-cleared by the federal government. While the court left that requirement in place, it rendered it essentially obsolete by ruling that the provisions that identify which jurisdictions the law covered were out of date. Congress “re-enacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no relationship to the present day” when it renewed the law in 2006, wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for the majority. “Our country has changed.”
In response to the judgment, Texas and Mississippi vowed to immediately implement voter identification laws that had been subject to federal approval. President Obama declared himself “deeply disappointed” by the ruling, which he said “upsets decades of well-established practices to help make sure voting is fair.”
What a travesty of justice, said Heather Gerken in Slate.com. Before the civil-rights movement, almost no African-Americans were registered to vote in the Deep South—not because they didn’t want to, but because they were prevented by “brutal repression and sickening legal chicanery.” Obstructed by arbitrary literacy tests, poll taxes, and unfair registration requirements, activists fought and died for protection under the 1965 Voting Rights Act. We should “mourn its passing.”
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But we live in a different era, said Jonathan S. Tobin in CommentaryMagazine.com. These states now look nothing like “the Jim Crow South that Congress put under the microscope five decades ago.” In fact, African-American turnout in five of the six Southern states covered by the act either exceeded or matched white turnout in 2012. This ruling recognizes that we’ve moved on from our unhappy past.
We have not, said Joan Walsh in Salon.com. As recently as 2010, Alabama legislators were caught discussing tactics of how to keep African-Americans from the polls. The 2012 surge in black turnout was “driven by anger” over such disgraceful schemes. Now we’ll see a new wave of voter ID and other laws designed purely to keep minorities from voting—all thanks to the Supreme Court.
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