Imagine an intersection with a long history of high-speed car crashes, injuries and fatalities. Authorities put up a traffic light and a speed camera — and the accidents and injuries plummet. A few years later, authorities declare “mission accomplished” and remove the light and speed camera. No surprise, the high-speed crashes and fatalities resume almost immediately. This is the logic that animated Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision to fillet the Voting Rights Act and that had conservative pundits, including George F. Will, praising the act as they simultaneously exulted in its demise. The predictable result took less than a day: Texas reinstated its racially tilted gerrymandered redistricting plan and moved to implement its highly restrictive voter ID law, under which voters can be required to travel as far as 250 miles to get identification. The real intent, voter suppression, is clear in the legislation’s provision that a concealed-weapon permit can be used to vote but a valid student photo ID cannot.
North Carolina has moved to follow with its own restrictive voter ID law. Other states and localities surely will do the same. With expensive, slow and complex lawsuits the only real recourse for voter discrimination and voter suppression actions, the floodgates are open to an array of legal efforts designed to suppress or diminish the votes of minorities, students and others.
As Roberts undoubtedly knew, the chances are slim that our highly polarized Congress can reach agreement on a new formula for the Voting Rights Act (even if lawmakers did, the Roberts court may not accept it). But the decision in Shelby County v. Holder should serve as a springboard to something more ambitious: a drive for a new Voting Rights Act that would go beyond the scope of the original to make voting more universal and accessible to all eligible Americans.
Section 4 of the act, which the court struck down, set out a formula by which certain states and jurisdictions are designated to need federal permission for any changes to their voting procedures. If Congress cannot agree on a formula for which states and localities to include for this preclearance, election reform expert Heather Gerken has suggested another option: Allow civil rights groups and the minority voters they represent, anywhere in the nation, to “opt in” to the Voting Rights Act by filing an administrative complaint with the Justice Department when their voting rights are constrained.