Fifty years ago, Southern lawmakers tried in vain to stop the Voting Rights Act, calling it an unconstitutional assault on their states’ right to decide who was qualified to cast a ballot. “The bill is tailor-made to Martin Luther King’s demand for Negro control of the political institutions of the South,” Democratic Sen. Allen Ellender of Louisiana, said on the Senate floor in 1965. “Only through such a nefarious piece of legislation could incompetents gain control of the political processes in the South or in the United States.” Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina argued that passing the Voting Rights Act would make Congress “the final resting place of the Constitution and the rule of law. For it is here that they will have been buried with shovels of emotion under piles of expediency,” Thurmond said. As the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act approaches on Aug. 6, the law is considered a landmark achievement in the struggle for civil rights and an inclusive democracy. Bipartisan majorities in Congress repeatedly have renewed it, and it’s credited with transforming the South by giving African-Americans the ability to share in civic life. But shades of the 1965 states’ rights debate have returned to Washington. A 2013 Supreme Court decision tossing out one part of the law has reopened the 50-year-old question over whether federal officials should be able to veto local election laws before they take effect because they might harm minority voters.
The justices invalidated the formula that had been used to determine which states, towns and cities had to get federal permission — or preclearance — before making any changes to their voting procedures. The provision is credited with preventing hundreds of discriminatory voting laws from taking effect, especially in the South.
Today’s Southern Republicans are invoking a similar states’ rights argument on why the court’s decision ending preclearance should be left alone. They say preclearance is an unnecessary relic and Congress should get out of the business of presuming some states will use new district boundaries, voter ID laws or relocated polling places to suppress the minority vote.
“The fact of the matter is we have a Voting Rights Act — it is very strong,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told the Roanoke (Va.) Times in June. “We are certainly willing to look at any new evidence of discrimination if there is a need to take any measures. But at this point in time, we have not seen that, and therefore no changes have been made since the Supreme Court decision.”