THE 50TH anniversary commemorations of the “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., have come and gone. But one of the principal achievements of the brave marchers still remains compromised. Congress needs to fix the Voting Rights Act, a fact that can’t be ignored now that the politicians have left Selma.
The Voting Rights Act subjected a handful of states with notorious records of voting discrimination to “preclearance,” meaning state and local officials had to submit proposed changes in electoral procedures to the Justice Department before implementing them. The results of preclearance and the other provisions of the act were dramatic. Massive racial gaps in voter registration and turnout in former Confederate states closed, a recent report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies noted. Congress reviewed and reauthorized this successful law several times over the decades since 1965, including under GOP leadership in 2006.
But the Supreme Court eviscerated preclearance in a 2013 ruling, with consequences that are only beginning to be understood. The justices didn’t strike preclearance entirely from the books, but they threw out the formula for determining which states and localities had to comply with it. Former preclearance states responded by rushing to impose onerous barriers to voting. Congress could easily repair the damage by approving a new formula that’s more likely to pass muster with the court. But it hasn’t acted.
That’s not for lack of trying on some lawmakers’ part. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a force behind the 2006 reauthorization, pushed a bill to repair the act last year and has reintroduced it this year. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), a senior member of the House, is co-sponsoring it. Yet Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees, have poured cold water on the idea of acting, on the grounds that the court left enough of the act intact that adequate protection remains.
That’s almost certainly wrong. Preclearance deterred a lot of bad behavior, from tiny local elections on up, and it was particularly powerful in preventing mischief in congressional district line-drawing. Now, concerned parties have to sue in order to strike down questionable election rules after they are implemented. There’s a chance that courts will reimpose preclearance on some bad-actor states and localities. But it’s unclear whether and to what extent that will happen.
Some voting rights advocates argue that the Sensenbrenner-Conyers bill doesn’t go far enough, since it exempts states such as Alabama and North Carolina from preclearance. Yet surely some preclearance is better than none. Both sides should shake hands on this.
The Voting Rights Act requires fixed attention, now, from lawmakers. For decades, the value of the act — all of it — has not been a partisan issue. It should not turn into one.