Inquirer Editorial: Voting rights are still vulnerable

The Supreme Court seen as a line formed for the start of the current term, in October.
The Supreme Court seen as a line formed for the start of the current term, in October. (Associated Press)
Posted: February 28, 2013

Half a century after Congress passed landmark civil-rights legislation, how far should the federal government go to protect the hard-won voting rights of once-disenfranchised minorities? That's the question before the U.S. Supreme Court after Wednesday's arguments on the latest challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While times have changed, the court should heed the continued need for voting protections.

The justices are considering a challenge to the section of the law that requires certain voting districts to get clearance from the U.S. Justice Department before they can change election rules or procedures. The provision applies to all or part of 16 states with a history of voter discrimination - mostly in the South, with its long history of voting laws designed to keep minorities out of polling places. Congress has repeatedly renewed the Voting Rights Act, most recently in 2006, when it extended the clearance requirement for 25 years.

Three years ago, the high court considered the same issue but ultimately sidestepped what Chief Justice John Roberts called a "difficult constitutional question." That's not likely to happen this time.

In the latest challenge, from Shelby County, Ala., state and county officials argue that in light of significant progress on voting rights, they should no longer be subject to the same level of federal oversight.

Indeed, the days of Bull Connor and church bombings are long gone, and race relations are not what they were 50 years ago. African Americans and other racial minorities voted in record numbers last year, helping to propel President Obama to a second term.

But that doesn't mean it's time to put away an effective tool for preventing voter discrimination. The 2012 election also provided ample evidence that such protections are still needed. The Voting Rights Act played a role in successful efforts to prevent several states, including Pennsylvania, from implementing voter-identification laws that were expected to discourage minorities from showing up at the polls.

And despite those efforts, there were still cases like that of the 102-year-old Florida woman who had to wait more than three hours to cast her ballot. Her state curtailed early voting, causing long lines at polling places.

Rather than striking down the Voting Rights Act's clearance requirement, the justices should provide guidance on updating the law. Congress could, for example, change the formula that determines which jurisdictions are covered and allow reduced oversight of those with strong records. The best outcome would be a ruling that gives lawmakers another opportunity to decide how to protect voters' constitutional rights fairly.

|
|
|
|
|