• Wrecking ball
    June 26,2013

    The U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for discrimination in voting with the decision handed down Tuesday gutting the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    Its ruling in Shelby Co. v. Holder will stand with its Citizens United decision as twin wrecking balls, destroying laws meant to institute justice in place of the law of the jungle. With the invalidation of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the court has opened a new chapter of political and legal warfare, forcing jurisdictions throughout the nation to refight battles previously won by the civil rights movement 50 years ago.

    Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required states with previous histories of racial discrimination in voting, mostly in the South, to gain approval from the U.S. Justice Department before making changes in their voting laws. The court held that times have changed and conditions prevailing in 1965 no longer exist. Thus, subjecting counties in Alabama or elsewhere to a higher degree of scrutiny is no longer justified.

    Defenders of the law pointed to recent history. During the 2012 election Republicans mounted a strategy of voter suppression that was blunted in part by Section 5. In states from Texas to Pennsylvania states sought to pass voter ID laws, erase names from registration rolls, curb early voting and gerrymander districts to make it harder for minority voters to vote.

    As the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University has pointed out, Section 5 blocked a photo ID requirement in Texas that could have prevented 600,000 eligible voters from casting ballots. Section 5 required Florida to reinstate early voting hours favored by minority voters. Section 5 invalidated redistricting maps in Texas found to discriminate intentionally against Latino voters.

    In addition, as the Brennan Center points out, the fact that changes in the law would have to win Justice Department approval deterred other jurisdictions from trying to pass discriminatory laws. South Carolina legislators rejected a restrictive voter ID law because they knew the Justice Department would strike it down.

    Now deterrence will be gone. In the wake of the court’s decision Tuesday, the Texas attorney general crowed that the state’s voter ID law would take effect immediately and the redistricting maps passed by the legislature would take effect without Justice Department approval.

    A wave of discriminatory laws seeking to make it harder for minorities to vote will not be long in coming. Civil rights groups and communities will now be forced to defend their rights by mounting lawsuits to prove that the new laws are discriminatory. In 2012 they succeeded in persuading the courts to reject a spate of discriminatory laws, but without the Justice Department’s role as a protector of standards, we can expect a bitter new round of civil rights struggles to follow the court’s decision.

    The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was one of the great monuments of the nation’s history. Men and women gave their lives to challenge the reign of terror prevailing in the South, where murder and terrorism were the methods deployed against a movement dedicated to the methods of peace. It is not ancient history as recent efforts to intimidate African-Americans have shown.

    At the same time, African-American voters in 2012 showed they were not easily intimidated. They stood in lines in some cases for long hours to cast their ballots. Efforts by Republicans to slip a new regime of Jim Crow rules into place to make voting inconvenient or impossible for minority voters could well rebound against the Republicans, as they did in 2012.

    Meanwhile, Sen. Patrick Leahy, disgusted by the court’s decision, immediately announced that the Senate Judiciary Committee would hold hearings on voting rights in anticipation of crafting legislation to guarantee that abuses do not occur and the gains of the nation’s great civil rights struggle are not turned back by a new era of racial bigotry.

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