Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. certainly sounded authoritative when he made a striking, though unflattering, declaration about Massachusetts as the high court heard arguments over the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is designed to assure equal access across races to polling booths. “Do you know which state has the worst ratio of white voter turnout to African-American voter turnout?” Roberts asked Donald Verrilli Jr., solicitor general for the Department of Justice, during Wednesday’s arguments. “I do not know that,” Verrilli answered. “Massachusetts,” Roberts responded, adding that even Mississippi has a narrower gap. Roberts later asked if Verrilli knew which state has the greatest disparity in registration. Again, Roberts said it was Massachusetts. The problem is, Roberts is woefully wrong on those points, according to Massachusetts Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who on Thursday branded Roberts’s assertion a slur and made a declaration of his own. “I’m calling him out,” Galvin said.
Galvin was not alone in his view. Academics and Massachusetts politicians said that Roberts appeared to be misguided. A Supreme Court spokeswoman declined to offer supporting evidence of Roberts’s view, referring a reporter to the court transcript.
On Thursday, Galvin tried to set the record straight. “We have one of the highest voter registrations in the country,” he said, “so this whole effort to make a cheap-shot point at Massachusetts is deceptive.”
Shelby County, Ala., is challenging a provision of the Voting Rights Act that requires nine states, mostly in the South, to seek permission from federal officials before changing voting procedures. Those states argue that the restrictions are unfair, and Roberts seemed to agree, appearing to use Massachusetts as an example of states that have been exempt from certain provisions of the act, yet less successful in providing ballot access.
“In the state of Massachusetts, we’ve seen a great increase in voter participation in communities of color, particularly among African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians,” said Boston city councilor Tito Jackson, who served as political director for Governor Deval Patrick’s most recent campaign.