That was then, this is now. The reasoning behind the Supreme Court’s ruling this week striking down key parts of the Voting Rights Act uses considerably more words, but that simple phrase pretty much says it all. To accept that conclusion, though, one has to accept that America is as post-racial as some have insisted since the election of President Obama.
The evidence is shaky. Just look at reactions to the court’s decision — the scrambling in some states to enact voter-ID and redistricting laws, the disappointment from others, including on the court itself, to changes in a law that guaranteed an essential right that makes each citizen equal, at least in the voting booth.
Congress has not updated the formula that determines the states and jurisdictions that discriminate, so that particular provision of the law — crucial to enforcement — is no more, the court ruled. Voting changes in states covered under the act can move ahead without preclearance from the Justice Department, with any challenges from aggrieved citizens coming after the fact in potentially slow-moving and expensive litigation.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., so certain in his logic in writing the majority decision, had to admit that voting discrimination still exists. Yet he wrote, “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” Roberts must have known that when it comes to asking Congress to act, then is most certainly not now.
In 2006, the Senate unanimously approved the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. A Republican president, George W. Bush, standing with leaders of the civil rights movement and members of the family of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., enthusiastically signed it, and said: “In four decades since the Voting Rights Act was first passed, we’ve made progress toward equality, yet the work for a more perfect union is never ending. We’ll continue to build on the legal equality won by the civil rights movement to help ensure that every person enjoys the opportunity that this great land of liberty offers. … My administration will vigorously enforce the provisions of this law, and we will defend it in court.”
In 2013, can anyone imagine the partisan, divided Congress, agreeing on anything, particularly an issue that has split along party lines? Don’t expect its members to start examining jurisdictions where the change of the location of a polling place or a decision to stop using a utility bill as an ID could mean someone without transportation or a driver’s license may have to sit out the 2014 midterm elections.
It was the national election of a Democratic, African American president – cited, ironically, as a sign that all is racially, electorally equal in America — that seemed to bring out a sudden concern for virtually nonexistent voter fraud and a rash of voter-ID rules.
Republicans, in states where they hold legislative majorities, are virtually licking their lips as they rush to approve efforts to restrict voting rights, many of which were stalled by the Justice Department the first time around. Right after this week’s Supreme Court decision, Texas said it would proceed with its voter-ID law and redistricting maps that had met opposition from the federal government for discriminating against minorities.
In North Carolina, GOP super-majorities had been trying to reverse voter-friendly rules by, for example, eliminating Sunday voting, same-day registration and the dependent tax-exemption for parents of college students who register where they attend school. There, reaction to the Supreme Court ruling was swift, as well. Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Republican who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, said in the News & Observer, “(It) should speed things along greatly.” (Though only 40 of the state’s 100 counties are covered by the act’s preclearance regulations, voting and redistricting plans have been subject to federal oversight.) Gov. Pat McCrory (R) has said he would sign voter-ID legislation.
In his reaction, Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) asked how much proof the Supreme Court needed. “My colleagues on the Judiciary Committee and I helped build a voluminous legislative record of over 15,000 pages that we believe more than justified reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and extension of the preclearance requirements of Section 5 of the VRA,” he said in a statement. “The activist majority on the Supreme Court has taken the unprecedented step of taking over a uniquely legislative function in disregard of the extensive work of the legislative branch and substituting their own judgment for that of elected representatives.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a blistering dissent, echoed Watt, citing the hundreds of voting changes blocked by the Justice Department between 1982 and 2006. She said the court didn’t seriously enough consider the evidence compiled to justify reauthorization. “One would expect more from an opinion striking at the heart of the nation’s signal piece of civil rights legislation,” Ginsburg wrote.
Groups disappointed by the Supreme Court’s ruling joined in a conference call on Wednesday and pressed their support for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the freedom to vote.
“The fight is far from over,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group that works with local and state partners on racial justice issues. “We are dedicated to fighting changes in state laws,” she said, to make sure the ballot remains “free, fair and accessible to all.”
Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange.org, the online civil rights organization, said that as a gay African-American man, he “watched the court recognize the aspirational right of couples all over the country to marry” and was “proud” to stand with the Advancement Project to fight for the right to vote.
The Rev. William Barber, the head of the North Carolina state NAACP, in the lead on ongoing “Moral Monday” marches in the state capital of Raleigh that have seen diverse crowds and arrests, said on the call, “This is a direct attack on the power of a changing electorate, a direct attempt to hold onto the solid South.”
Gihan Perera, executive director of Florida New Majority, and Tram Nguyen, associate director of Virginia New Majority, joined in and spoke of their work on civil rights and immigrant rights in diverse communities in key Southern states.
After the 2012 elections, and more recent stories that show whites’ deaths outnumbering births for the first time, GOP promises to reach out to all of America seemed a smart idea, proof that the changing country was reason to hope, not fear, to expand, not restrict. When I asked, though, former Republican congressman J.C. Watts, an African American, said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
The effort had had a few bumps along the way, including the recent case of Illinois Republican Party official Jim Allen, who resigned after calling a congressional candidate, a biracial woman and former Miss America, a “street walker” and other racially charged insults. And she’s a Republican.
It would be heartening to think the current Congress could come to an agreement on an issue as fraught with political consequence as basic as voting rights, and give the Supreme Court what it says it wants in the historic legislation. It has a resident expert, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, beaten yet resolute on the front lines of the fight for equality and a voting booth open to all.
“The Supreme Court has stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act,” Lewis said. “Although the court did not deny that voter discrimination still exists, it gutted the most powerful tool this nation has ever had to stop discriminatory voting practices from becoming law. Those justices were never beaten or jailed for trying to register to vote. They have no friends who gave their lives for the right to vote. I want to say to them, ‘Come and walk in my shoes.’”
He said, “In a democracy, one act of voter discrimination should be too much.”
Will Lewis be a moral beacon? Perhaps only in the fantasy world of the Supreme Court, where the past is truly past.
In the real world where Florida voters stand in line for seven and eight hours, when early voting is curtailed and legal citizens see their names turn up on flawed purge lists, Lewis’s strong voice is indeed needed.
But in 2013, this veteran of then, who knows what it takes to protect hard-won rights, even now, may be ignored.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3