Editorial: More symbol than real law

  • Posted: Wednesday, June 26, 2013 12:25 a.m.

After the Supreme Court’s deeply divided 5-4 decision Tuesday, the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 is now more a statement of principle than an effective law with teeth.

Chief Justice John Roberts began his majority decision reprising the original rationale for the act: “to address entrenched racial discrimination in voting, ‘an insidious and pervasive evil which had been perpetuated in certain parts of our country through unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution.’ ”

In the intervening years, obstacles to minority voting became less pervasive and less blatant, although nine states, mostly in the South, and parts of six others, were still required to get federal approval in advance before changing their voting laws. The Voting Rights Act, in sum, worked, greatly increasing minority participation in the political process and the number of minority officeholders.

If the high court is as sensitive to the will of Congress as some advocates have claimed, the court didn’t show it in the Voting Rights decision. A Republican-run Congress under a Republican president, George W. Bush, in 2006 overwhelmingly — 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House — voted to extend the law, including the existing preclearance provisions, for 25 years.

In the 2006 case and another in 2009, the court strongly hinted that Congress should revisit and revise if necessary the standards and formulas, largely unchanged for nearly five decades, by which it determined which states and jurisdictions were subject to preclearance.

Roberts chided Congress for not using that time to “to fashion a coverage formula grounded in current conditions. It instead re-enacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relation to the present day.”

Citing racial progress and changes in American society since 2006, Roberts wrote, “The coverage formula that Congress reauthorized in 2006 ignores these developments, keeping the focus on decades-old problems, rather than current data reflecting current needs.”

And so he and four other justices found Section 4 of the act, the pre-clearance formula “unconstitutional in light of current conditions.”

Roberts is right that the problems may be decades old, but they haven’t gone away, only changed their shape. Instead of beatings and literacy tests, there are onerous voter ID laws, gerrymandering, inconveniently located polling places and curtailed voting hours.

Unfortunately, this Congress is clearly incapable politically of updating a voting rights law. Indeed, many current members are probably opposed to the whole concept of special protections for minority voting rights.

Until a new Congress comes along, one that is bipartisan and capable of collaborating on complicated legislation, the Voting Rights Act will have to stand as a laudatory American goal, one now much more difficult to realize.

— Scripps Howard News Service

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