JUST TWO years ago, it seemed possible the Voting Rights Act would not make it to its 50th birthday. It did Thursday, and on the eve of the anniversary one court handed down a promising decision: Texas’s voter identification legislation violated the 1965 act by discriminating against minorities and the poor. So insidious a law never should have gone into effect.
In June 2013, the Supreme Court struck down one of the Voting Rights Act’s most powerful provisions, a requirement that states with records of discrimination — states such as Texas — submit proposed changes in electoral procedure to the Justice Department for review (known as “preclearance”). Texas began enforcing its law the very same day. The legislation looks like bills passed in many other states since the Supreme Court’s decision: It restricts the voting pool to those who present government-issued photo ID at the polls. Those least likely to have the documentation are the state’s poor and minority residents.
Wednesday, an appeals panel in the 5th Circuit struck down the measure, finding that its effect — if not its intent, as a lower court had found — was to discriminate. On the question of motivation, the appeals court stayed silent. It sent the case back to the district court, giving it the opportunity to affirm its judgment that Texas legislators put the law in place to do exactly what it did: bar minorities from the ballot box. Because the lawmakers claim they passed the legislation to prevent voting fraud yet provided little proof of any violations, it’s hard to imagine why else they would impose such strict requirements.
Texas should not appeal the 5th Circuit’s decision. In fact, the best outcome would be a district court order subjecting Texas’s voting laws once again to Justice Department review. Still, even that would be an insufficient answer to a problem that stretches far beyond the Lone Star State. Because the Texas law was in effect for the 2014 election, many Texans already have been deprived of their rights. So have citizens of other states, 15 of which have more restrictive voting rules now than they did in 2012.
In her dissent in the 2013 Supreme Court case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously wrote that “throwing out preclearance . . . is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” The majority opinion opened the floodgates, and now many Americans are soaked. It is Congress’s job to pass a version of the Voting Rights Act with an updated formula for identifying states that should be subject to Justice Department review — and that will pass Supreme Court muster. In a country with woefully low election turnout, we should be thinking up ways to get more people into the voting booth — not ways to keep them out in the rain.