NORMAN — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a section — again, a section — of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. That section required just nine states and parts of seven others to get preclearance from the federal government before changing their voting laws.
What still remains law is the Voting Rights Act itself, which prohibits discriminatory voting practices. Both private parties and the Justice Department can challenge any practices in court.
Without question the United States has had a difficult history with racial discrimination taking it nearly 100 years from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Voting Rights Act to right a long-standing wrong.
But the section of the law — Section 4 — that was struck down, the court ruled, can no longer be justified constitutionally. This section was based on factual findings that were woefully out-of-date, using statistics from 1972 and earlier years to determine which states or jurisdictions were discriminating and requiring such pre-clearance. As if those southern states and jurisdictions are the only ones in the country that could be discriminatory.
Even though, as pointed out by the chief justice in oral argument, the state with the largest gap between white and black voter turnout is Massachusetts.
As was pointed out in the ruling, Congress has the power to replace Section 4 and bring the preclearance data up to date rather than continue to single out specific states and jurisdictions mostly in the South. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has reportedly expressed interest in rewriting this section which we doubt will be undertaken because some areas will have to face an unpleasant truth — racism can still exist everywhere. And it was easier to continue to punish the South rather than accept responsibility for your own actions.
The civil rights community is roiling from the ruling, claiming the Voting Rights Act has been gutted. We expect there to be pressure on Congress, and rightfully so. As pointed out by Abigail Thernstrom, vice-chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Congress could restore federal powers to review all proposed changes in election procedures with the burden of proving an absence of discrimination in that district. It could use that data from the 2012 elections.
But in doing so, we would learn that no state had a total voter turnout rate under 50 percent for whites or minorities — a figure used in the old formula.
Civil Rights advocates have long wanted states like Ohio to be subject to preclearance and a rewriting would get them that wish.
But this was never about statistics. The wounds from the horrors civil rights activities suffered during the mid-1960s were very real and seared into the memories of many in this country. Even Justice Stephen Breyer noted that the “disease is still there” and no amount of factual data will convince many race relations have improved.
And while it has done well, it was unfairly targeting the South as though it was the only location in our country that was prejudiced. Congress has the charge to amend Section 4 and make it truly a Voting Rights Act for the nation that holds all states accountable and not just a select few.
—The Mankato, Minn., Free Press