The 1965 Voting Rights Act sought to correct a historic wrong. For much of the 100 years following the end of the Civil War, the South had acted as if it had actually won the war. It resisted extending the full rights of citizenship, including the vote, to African-Americans. Those states had placed all manner of barriers between blacks and the ballot box. When blacks resisted to this injustice, they were met with terrorism, both from individuals and representatives of state and local governments.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required stricter Justice Department scrutiny over voting in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Alaska, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia, as well as parts of California, Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York and South Dakota.
The law has been renewed by Congress several times since 1965. Yet, last week the Supreme Court — in a case brought by Alabama’s Shelby County — pondered if special protections over voting rights in certain parts of the United States are necessary in 2013. As Chief Justice John Roberts put it during Wednesday’s oral arguments, “Is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North?”
We see no explicit harm in discussion of the fundamental protections provided by the Voting Rights Act.
In fact, we imagine what the Supreme Court justices would have learned had they spent last Wednesday touring Alabama, one of the places that once made life a living hell for African-Americans seeking the vote.
They wouldn’t see any violence visited upon black Alabamians as was so often the case in the 1950s and 1960s as the civil rights struggle gained steam. The streets of Birmingham, Montgomery and Anniston are free of the strife that harmed Alabama’s reputation.
Had the justices made a stop in Anniston last Wednesday, they would have seen self-appointed black leaders protesting what they termed local corruption. Yet, what’s missing is strong evidence to support the protesters’ laundry list of complaints. We imagine Justice Roberts or Justice Antonin Scalia lending an ear to these fevered conspiracies and asking, “Is that all you’ve got?”
Yet, had the court then traveled to Montgomery, they would have seen a voter-ID law set to take effect in 2014. The law will almost certainly make it difficult for Alabamians on the margins of society to vote starting next year. Two possibilities emerge for why the Legislature’s Republican majority passed its voter-ID law.
In one possible scenario, Montgomery took an ahistorical view of the state’s sordid reputation when it comes to voting, which includes poll taxes, literacy tests and other means meant to stealthily deny African-Americans access to the polls. In the other, Alabama joined the many other Republican-dominated legislatures, including virtually all from the South, that aggressively sought to tamp down turnout of voters who typically favor the other political party. In a state where there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, we can’t see any other possibilities.
Which brings us back to the complicated evidence before the Supreme Court. Acts of terrorism against African-Americans seeking to vote have disappeared from the South. Poll taxes are gone, thanks to the federal government. Yet, Southern statehouses don’t offer us much confidence when it comes to protecting access to the ballot box for all eligible voters. The court has much to ponder over the coming months. The justices’ first priority should be not undoing decades of progress by striking down the Voting Rights Act.