Feature

Questioning voting-rights rules

The Supreme Court appeared poised to strike down a key clause in the Voting Rights Act.

The Supreme Court appeared poised this week to strike down a key clause in the Voting Rights Act, after the court’s conservative bloc questioned whether black and other minority voters were still discouraged from voting in the South. Section 5 of the 1965 law aimed to end disenfranchisement of African-American voters by requiring nine mostly Southern states and several smaller jurisdictions to seek “preclearance” from federal officials before changing any election procedures.

At oral argument this week, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that black voters had higher turnout in Mississippi than in Massachusetts, and pointedly asked, “Is it the government’ssubmission that the citizens in the South are more racist than the citizens in the North?” Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer said the “disease’’ of racism had gotten better since 1965, but “is still there.’’ Justice Anthony Kennedy, a frequent swing voter on a court divided along ideological lines, signaled skepticism. “The Marshall Plan was very good, too,” he said. “But times change.” 

He’s right about that, said Edward Blum in The Wall Street Journal. Thanks largely to the Voting Rights Act, “the emergency that existed in 1965 is over.” This unfair law fails to recognize “the remarkable racial progress made by the deep South” since then, and the court should strike it down. 

How can “one of the crowning achievements of the civil-rights era” now be “hanging by a thread?” asked Linda Greenhouse in The New York Times. This is a supple law; many jurisdictions once subject to it have established a proven record of non-discrimination and are no longer covered. It’s up to Congress to decide whether it needs updating, but for the court, “striking down Section 5 would be a truly radical move.” 

We still need this law, said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.)in The Washington Post. Even recently, it’s been used to block photo ID laws and redistricting plans that were deemed intentionally discriminatory. The all-too-familiar Southern jurisdictions that this law rightly places under special scrutiny “still have the most persistent, flagrant, contemporary records of discrimination in this country.”

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