Election oversight matters; keep the Voting Rights Act

March 4, 2013 

At one point during the U.S. Supreme Court’s hearing of a case challenging a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act came a revealing comment from the high court’s most predictable arch conservative, Antonin Scalia.

Justice Scalia said the law now amounted to a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”

The preposterousness of that conclusion was not lost, thankfully, on Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who quickly asked one of the lawyers representing the Alabamians challenging part of the act, “Do you think that the right to vote is a racial entitlement? Do you think that racial discrimination in voting has ended, that there is none anywhere?”

Point made. Scalia’s sanctimony was amazing. The right to vote is an entitlement, or is supposed to be, for all American citizens.

But any student of this nation’s history knows that discrimination against black citizens with regard to voting has been blatant and commonplace over time, particularly in the South. Poll taxes, literacy tests and just random exclusions designed to keep African-Americans from voting out of spite or racism or in an attempt to mute their voices and beat their candidates were widespread in the former Confederacy.

Alabama challenge

Speaking of the Confederacy, it is a challenge from Shelby County, Ala., that has brought the issue to the fore. The county says that the part of the law requiring voting jurisdictions to get clearance from the federal government before any changes can be made in voting rules is outdated and unnecessary. In North Carolina, 40 counties are affected.

Basically, the argument is that discrimination of the type the law was meant to prevent doesn’t exist, that black citizens’ rights are secure.

All the justices acknowledge that progress has been made on that front, but they differ as to whether that part of the Voting Rights Act should be lifted. As veteran Justice Stephen Breyer said, “It’s gotten a lot better. A lot better. But it’s still there.”

Indeed, some argue that the push from Republicans in the N.C. General Assembly to establish a voter ID law is an example of “still there.” Because some minority and elderly citizens lack conventional IDs such as driver’s licenses, they’d have to go through a bureaucratic process to get identification, which would be burdensome for many.

Such a rule would increase the likelihood that people in those groups wouldn’t vote, a factor more likely to help Republicans than Democrats. If it’s such a virtuous law aimed only at preventing voter fraud, why is this effort so partisan? It smacks of being a cold calculation from Republicans to gain every advantage they can.

Virtually no fraud

The fraud excuse, after all, doesn’t fly. There is very little evidence of any significant voter fraud in North Carolina.

It may not be a poll tax, but a voter ID law is clearly designed to benefit one party over another, and courts have struck down some. High court justices should be rightly suspicious that a challenge to part of the Voting Rights Act comes as Republicans in North Carolina and elsewhere are working hard on voter identification requirements.

In this state, Republicans have been quiet, doubtless hoping the justices rule in favor of the Alabamians so GOP legislative leaders here can move ahead with a voter ID law.

The South can be proud of the progress made in ensuring equal rights, from the school room to the voting booth, for all citizens. North Carolina made more progress than most of its neighbors because of moderate governors and the influence of the University of North Carolina system, especially under the enlightened leadership of the late William Friday.

But discrimination is deceptive, and like a dormant virus it can be subject to an unpleasant recurrence. The extension of the Voting Rights Act, a proud landmark in the civil rights movement, was overwhelmingly approved by Congress in 2006. It should stand, all parts of it, until that 25-year extension has expired.

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