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Editorial

Voting Rights Act still matters

Discrimination has evolved since 1965 to systemic abuses that dilute minorities' power at the ballot box.

December 27, 2011
  • Tea party activists including Jolene Hawkins, left, protest outside the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, where Atty. Gen. Eric Holder denounced state laws that restrict the voting process, including one in Texas.
Tea party activists including Jolene Hawkins, left, protest outside the… (Rodolfo Gonzalez, Austin…)

Next month the Supreme Court will consider a controversy over congressional redistricting in Texas that will highlight the importance of a crucial part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act: Section 5, which requires states and localities with a history of voting discrimination to "pre-clear" changes in their election practices with the Justice Department or a federal court. In 2009 the court declined to rule on the constitutionality of Section 5, but it could return to the issue. If they are in any doubt about the continued need for it, they should read a recent speech by Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.

Holder did not confine his remarks to Section 5. He spoke more generally about contemporary threats to the voting rights of minorities, who decades ago took what Holder called "extraordinary risks, and willingly confronted hatred, bias and ignorance — as well as billy clubs and fire hoses, bullets and bombs" — to ensure the right of all Americans to vote. But he emphasized Section 5 and offered an example: In October, the Justice Department forced changes in a redistricting map in a Louisiana parish that had been approved without participation by African American officeholders and diminished the voting strength of blacks. Another example emerged Friday when the Justice Department used Section 5 to reject a new South Carolina law requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls, saying the law made it harder for minorities to vote.

Section 5 has been subject to relentless attack from the right, which makes two arguments. The first is that pre-clearance continues to stigmatize nine states and dozens of localities, many in the deep South that, the argument goes, have long since ended discrimination in voting. The second is that it ignores abuses in other states. Congress rejected the first proposition when it overwhelmingly voted in 2006 to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act for 25 years. As for the second, if other areas engage in consistent patterns of discrimination, they too should be subject to pre-clearance.

Discrimination in voting has evolved since 1965. The Justice Department's focus is now less on explicit procedures designed to bar black individuals from the polls than on systemic abuses that dilute minorities' voting power and make it harder for them to elect candidates of their choice. Among the actions that impede minority voting are gerrymandering to dilute black voting power, restricting early voting and abolishing Sunday voting, which is said to be particularly attractive to African Americans.

Holder's critics will note that he serves in a Democratic administration, that minority voters overwhelmingly support Democrats — and therefore that his position is self-serving. But that is no excuse to undermine the Voting Rights Act or to allow states and localities to erect barriers to minority voting. The lesson, instead, is that Republicans should do more to appeal to minority voters.

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