Supreme Court rightly cites 'old data' in Voting Rights Act

The Supreme Court has rightly decided that the Voting Rights Act's 'extraordinary measures' to prevent voting discrimination must be directed toward places where discrimination is going on now, not where it happened nearly 50 years ago.

Evan Vucci/AP
Shelby County, Ala., lawyer Bert Rein speaks with reporters outside the Supreme Court in February, after arguments in the Shelby County v. Holder voting rights case. Op-ed contributor Jonathan S. Tobin writes: 'Even those opposed to the court’s decision today must acknowledge [that] voting rights in the South...are as protected now as they are in any other part of the country.'

Racism is the original sin of American history. But acknowledging this should not mean ignoring America’s racial progress since 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was enacted to help right this wrong. By striking down a key provision of the act today, the Supreme Court has rightly decided that the act’s “extraordinary measures” to prevent voting discrimination must be directed toward places where discrimination is going on now, not where it happened nearly 50 years ago.

In a 5-4 ruling in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, the court upheld the principle that localities with a history of discrimination be subject to approval from the federal government before changing their voting laws. But it struck down as unconstitutional the formula to determine those locations, because that formula is based on “decades-old data,” as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. Unless Congress updates the formula, approval – which has blindly covered 15 states in part or in whole – can’t be applied.

Congress originally passed the Voting Rights Act to enforce the 15th Amendment that bars states from denying citizens the right to vote based on  “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” Willful federal negligence in enforcing the amendment had gone on for a century.

But as even those opposed to the court’s decision today must acknowledge, voting rights in the South, where approval mostly applies, and other parts of the country that were placed under the act’s supervision,  are as protected now as they are in any other part of the country. While racism is not extinct, it is no longer sovereign in the South. Indeed, as it was argued before the court, in some ways Mississippi is a better place for voting than Massachusetts.

Congress should have addressed these changes each time it re-authorized an act that was never intended to be permanent. But altering it in any way became taboo in a politically correct environment in which preservation of the existing scheme for approval became a litmus test of tolerance.

Congress did not muster the courage to deal with the new reality so it fell to the court to rightly declare that treating states in this discriminatory fashion based only on what had happened there a half-century earlier was clearly unconstitutional. If there is to be approval of election procedures in the future, it must be based on a new formula rooted in present day conditions – if Congress can ever agree on one.

This is a sensible decision that preserves the Voting Right Act yet strips it of a mechanism that is a vestigial remnant of past battles that have been long since resolved. If liberals and civil rights groups are blasting the court it is not because the right to vote is in any real danger in 2013 America but because the Voting Rights Act has become a handy tool they have used to prevent common sense measures about voting around the nation that have been wrongly labeled racist.

For example, polls show the vast majority of Americans, including most African-Americans, regard the requirement that voters be able to identify themselves at the polls when they go to vote as a common sense measure needed to prevent voter fraud.

Yet the Voting Rights Act was used by the Obama Justice Department to prevent some states from adopting Voter ID laws that the court has deemed constitutional and which have been put into law in other states. By continuing to wave the flag of Jim Crow on such flimsy grounds, civil rights groups have discredited the cause they seek to protect.

Those who oppose the court’s decision seem to think America should continue to pretend that its politics and society are no different than in 1965. We should all agree that the right to vote must be defended, but pretending that nothing has changed in America since then does neither the law nor the cause of equality any good.

Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor and chief political blogger of Commentary magazine. He can be reached via email at: Follow him on Twitter at @TobinCommentary.

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