The story of voting rights in the year 2013 — how the five conservative justices of the United States Supreme Court undercut them last month and what Congress must do to restore them now — is really the story of America itself. There has been much premature self-congratulation mixed in with a great deal of denial and dissonance. There has been a widening gulf between promise and reality. Patriotic words of bipartisanship have flowed, promises of cooperation have oozed, but there are few rational reasons to believe that the nation’s representatives will quickly rally together to do what needs to be done. The premature self-congratulation came from the Court itself. Less than one year after Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act stymied voter suppression efforts in the 2012 election in Florida, Texas and South Carolina, Chief Justice John Roberts in his opinion in Shelby County v. Holder heralded the “great strides” the nation has made in combating such suppression and the fact that “blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.” Not so rare. Before the sun set that day, June 25th, officials in Texas and North Carolina had moved forward with restrictive voting measures that had been blocked by the federal law.
The denial and dissonance come from Congress. Federal lawmakers are in denial if they believe they can enact a new “coverage formula” for Section 4 with the same bipartisan fervor with which they endorsed the old formula in 2006. The clearest evidence of the ugliness of the coming fight was the appearance Thursday, at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Voting Rights Act, of Hans von Spakovsky, the nation’s foremost tribune of the voter fraud myth. Chairing that hearing? Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), one of only a few dozen federal lawmakers who voted against the Act’s re-authorization in 2006.
In a perfect world, Congress would acknowledge what we all see — that the current generation of voter suppression efforts is not limited to the South.
The distraction was evident Wednesday, also on Capitol Hill, when the Senate Judiciary held a brief hearing on the Voting Rights Act. Ranking Member Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) stayed just long enough to praise voter identification laws (which are being employed nationwide to suppress largely Democratic votes). Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) extolled the virtues of same-day voter registration. And one of the witnesses, conservative attorney Michael Carvin, went so far as to suggest in comments and answers that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which was left untouched by the Shelby County ruling, also is unconstitutional.
So long as lawmakers focus upon protecting against voter fraud that doesn’t exist, there will be no quick remedy for the federal law. So long as lawmakers downplay the disastrous impact of restrictive voter identification laws upon the poor, the elderly, and the ill, there will be no urgency to restore what the Court has eliminated. So long as officials undercut the premise of the Voting Rights Act by contending that federal law should be “color-blind,” and that the Fifteenth Amendment must bow to the Tenth Amendment, we are in for an ugly fight if Section 4 is to be revised.