It was predictable after the U.S. Supreme Court undercut the Voting Rights Act that certain states would move quickly to take advantage of their greater ability to rig elections and, sure enough, certain ones did.
Within minutes of the Supreme Court’s decision last month, both Texas and Mississippi – states with a wretched history of harassing minority voters – announced they would move to implement controversial voter ID laws without Justice Department approval. Those laws are meant to benefit Republican candidates, as a Republican leader from Pennsylvania made abundantly clear last year.
Now, the Justice Department has announced that it will ask a court to require Texas to get permission from the federal government before making voter changes there over the next decade. Other states are also expected to be targeted soon.
It is an important move, even though Congress is considering new anti-discrimination measures. Why? Because Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Pennsylvania and other states have clearly demonstrated that they have no compunction about misusing their legislative authority to hinder minority voting. These states, without exception, are dominated by Republicans – a shameful legacy for the party that ended American slavery.
In its 5-4 decision, the court ruled that conditions had changed in the 48 years since the Voting Rights Act was approved and that a pre-approval mechanism that was once needed is no longer valid.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said, “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 said our country has changed, but he evidently never heard the old saw that the more things change, the more they stay the same. States may be using different tricks to subvert minority voting rights but, in the end, that is what they are doing.
Supporters of the voter ID laws say they are needed to prevent Election Day voter fraud, a problem that is virtually nonexistent and is already dealt with by other laws.
The real effect of those laws is to reduce turnout by those who lack a government-approved identification card. Most of those people are the poor and minorities.
That’s why the Justice Department’s move was important. No right is as fundamental to democratic society as the right of citizens to vote. Courts exist in part to protect those basic rights, as the courts must do now.
It is good news that Congress is considering updated protections for minority voters, but that is hardly cause to rest easy, given the nature of this Congress. Minorities played a large role in twice electing President Obama, after all, and the tea party right despises Obama and anything associated with him. Why would its congressional members lift a finger to help those voters?
There is only one reason Republicans might do the right thing: The debate over immigration reform is also a debate over minority rights. If Republicans in the House block immigration reform and also fail to institute serious voter protections, they can kiss goodbye the votes of Hispanics, African-Americans and other minorities for decades to come.
For that reason, and perhaps more patriotic ones, Republicans in the House are moving on this. It is Congress’ obligation to act, said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., sponsor of updates to the law, and he wants the changes enacted before the 2014 elections.
But Sensenbrenner also included a condition that, in the hands of this juvenile Congress, could be a poison pill: While House Republican leaders are open to the task, he said, they have to see a draft first (OK), the law must address the court’s objections (obviously) and it must be “politically acceptable in both houses” of Congress – one of which is devoted, at least in some areas, to erecting barriers to minority voters. Good luck.
We’ll keep an open mind, but Republicans have their work cut out for them if they want Americans to believe they harbor any serious interest in protecting minority voters. In the meantime, the courts are the safety valve. They must meet their obligations.