Put teeth back into voting rights; High court neuters still-needed law

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. McClatchy

The U.S. Supreme Court disappointingly ruled the crown jewel of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional on Tuesday, effectively eliminating the requirement that states and counties with a history of voter discrimination, mostly in the South, preclear changes in voting procedures with the Department of Justice.

Overwhelmingly reauthorized by Congress several times, the Voting Rights Act has suppressed discriminatory voting laws and dramatically bolstered the participation of once-excluded minorities. All this success calls for the law's continuation, not its elimination.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, ruled that the section of the law that determined which jurisdictions were subjected to extra scrutiny relied on outdated election information and was thus unconstitutional. Kentucky is not subject to preclearance.

"While the Supreme Court dealt a blow to voter equality today, it also placed the onus on Congress to improve the law and ensure that the equality our legal system prizes also applies in the voting booth," Congressman John Yarmuth, D.-Louisville, wrote in a Facebook post. "Now, Congress must act to preserve that which is fundamental to our democracy: the right to vote for all citizens."

Don't hold your breath.

Experts remain highly skeptical that Congress, currently deeply partisan and less popular than root canals, would rewrite that portion of the law, despite its nearly unanimous support in the past.

While the court's conservative majority may have preemptively declared an end to racial discrimination on the basis of voter registration statistics, onerous techniques like gerrymandering, stringent ID laws and unlawful purging of voter rolls still remain.

One need look no further than last year's election cycle to be convinced: Republicans admitted to designing the photo ID law in Pennsylvania to assist Mitt Romney and attempted to reduce polling site hours in Ohio and redraw legislative maps in Texas for political gains.

For while the guard is now shackled, the threat continues unabated.

Within two hours of the decision, Texas instated a voter identification law that the Department of Justice had previously rejected for its discriminatory impact on Hispanic and poor voters.

Rather than dwindling, more objections to voting changes were filed between 1982 and 2004 than from 1964 to the 1982 reauthorization.

Instead of the deterring effects of preclearance, states and counties will now be able to put discriminatory voting laws into effect that can only be dislodged by time-consuming and costly lawsuits.

The extremely slow litigation would allow tainted elections to proceed in the interim — and states could always switch to trickier discriminatory procedures to evade undesirable decisions.

The inadequacy of the lawsuit system, along with the severe costs to the democratic integrity of the country, drove the Supreme Court to uphold the Voting Rights Act many times in the past. That logic is no less relevant today.

In the words of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, "the law is as necessary today as it was in the era of Jim Crow laws."

As improbable as it might be, we urge the president and Congress to quickly pass the measures necessary to resuscitate the Voting Rights Act.

Every American deserves the right to vote.