History is a master teacher. It rewards star pupils by pushing them forward, and dooms bad students to repeat its most painful lessons.
Apparently, America is comprised of bad history students, because we have ignored what we’ve been taught by our past — that American voters will not be denied the right to participate in elections, even if it costs them their lives.
We learned a simple lesson in wars both foreign and domestic, in conflicts both declared and covert, in protests both violent and peaceful: Americans will die for the right to vote, and one group after another has done so. Poor white men and immigrants, women and people of color; all of them have fought through every imaginable barrier in order to secure the vote. And yet, in a stunning decision, the Supreme Court this week delivered a ruling that could once again disenfranchise a segment of Americans. Given the history, however, I predict that disenfranchisement will be short lived.
Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision deemed Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional, saying the section contains an outdated formula to determine which areas of the country have a history of racial discrimination. Such areas must seek federal approval before instituting changes to local voting laws. But in a 5-4 decision that fell along ideological lines, the court’s conservative wing voted to strike down Section 4.
“Section 4’s formula is unconstitutional in light of current conditions,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices.”
What does that mean? Essentially, it means the U.S. Justice Department still has the authority to approve voting-related statutes in areas with a history of racial discrimination. However, the Justice Department can’t use the current formula to determine which areas have such histories. A new formula can be put in place, but it has to be approved by Congress. That’s a grim prospect, since Congress is in one of the most contentious periods in its history, and compromise is difficult to reach.
That leaves the Voting Rights Act in limbo at a time when voting rights are being changed and challenged not just in the South, but in areas all over the country — including Pennsylvania.
In our state, the battle has centered on Pennsylvania’s recently adopted Voter ID law — a measure that was put on hold by a judge in the presidential election and whose fate will be decided in a trial set to begin July 15. Conservatives argue that the law will help to fight voter fraud. Liberals believe the law will only make it harder for minorities, the elderly and the poor — people statistically less likely to have photo identification — to vote in Pennsylvania. The truth, I believe, is closer to the latter, because the bill’s proponents, when pressed, could not produce proof that widespread voter fraud was an issue in Pennsylvania, or indeed, anywhere in the country.
Despite the absence of proof of voter fraud as a widespread problem, 28 states around the country have adopted some form of Voter ID law. And in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, Texas, whose Voter ID law was blocked when a federal court said it discriminated against Hispanics, announced that it will immediately implement its law.
“With today’s decision, the state’s voter ID law will take effect immediately,” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said. “Redistricting maps passed by the legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government.”
In blocking those redistricting maps last year, a panel of federal judges ruled that the government “provided more evidence of discriminatory intent than we have space, or need, to address.” Attorney General Eric Holder cited the Texas redistricting case in a statement criticizing the Supreme Court’s ruling.
But in truth, the Supreme Court is not entirely to blame. When Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006, it should have made an effort to update the formula used to determine which jurisdictions would be subject to federal monitoring. It was well known, even then, that the law was being challenged on that basis. It should have been fixed
Justice Roberts is right when he says Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is dependent on old data. No one can dispute that point. But when Roberts says the practices that precipitated the Voting Rights Act have been eradicated, he is wrong. The desire to disenfranchise voters has not disappeared. It has simply changed form.
Disenfranchisement is now accomplished through gerrymandering, which is the practice of drawing legislative districts to give one group an advantage of over another. Or it takes the form of strict Voter ID laws that disproportionately burden the poor. It is sometimes accomplished through restrictions on alternative means of voting such as provisional ballots or early voting. But voter disenfranchisement hasn’t disappeared, and if history is any indication, it will always exist in one form or another, just as it did in the years leading up to the Voting Rights Act.
Fifty years ago, in 1963, our country was caught in the throes of the Civil Rights struggle. Martin Luther King, Jr., led a quarter million people to Washington and spoke of a future where his children would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
The next year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became the body of King’s dream. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became its teeth. That landmark piece of legislation identified areas where the racist policies of state and local governments had systematically denied voting rights to blacks and other minorities. It gave the federal government oversight concerning changes in voting laws. That kind of federal involvement harkened back to Reconstruction — the period after the Civil War. And just like the federal government’s role in reshaping the South created backlash in the 1860s, it did the same in the 1960s. History taught its lessons, and it wrote them down in blood.
Robert Brand, a Philadelphian who has been involved in voting issues for decades, was 20 years old in 1966, the year after the Voting Rights Act was passed. In June of that year, a black Mississippi man named James Meredith set out to walk from the northernmost part of Mississippi straight down U.S. 40 to Jackson, the state capitol, to show that African Americans should not fear registering to vote and demanding full equality under the law.
Before the first day of Meredith’s march was done, he was shot by a sniper hiding at the side of the road. The opponents of voting rights thought the battle was over in Mississippi. They thought shooting and wounding Meredith would frighten others away, but it didn’t.
“Ten thousand people came from everywhere to complete Meredith’s march,” Brand said, and for three weeks, Brand marched with them, taking pictures along the way. He created a portfolio of those pictures during the last presidential election. Brand said the fight for voter’s rights continues with this latest Supreme Court ruling.
“There has been an assault on voters throughout the whole history of this country,” Brand said. “People of color, poor people, Native Americans, African Americans, the Irish. And that fight has taken place because the more people who vote, that means the government is there for everybody and not just the rich. I did the portfolio because it became clear that we would have to fight this fight again, and now with this ugly decision of the Supreme Court we are going to have to fight it again.”
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