That's right, the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Section 5 of the Act says that in 17 states that have a history of terrorism at the ballot box, the federal government must approve changes in the way voting is conducted. And in an innocuous case of a little unincorporated area located northwest of Austin, Texas, a suit was filed which reached the U.S. Supreme Court and the implications of their ruling could set the stage for overturning Section 5.
Don't get too excited! The Court didn't reverse the four decades old ruling. But the 8-1 decision allowing the Canyon Creek community to change polling places without federal oversight, opens the door to consider whether or not there needs to be special protection of the voting rights of minorities. The technical term for receiving approval from the federal government changes in voting procedures is called 'preclearance'. The word for exemption from 'preclearance? You got it: 'bailout'!
On its face, and taken in isolation, there seems to be nothing wrong with the ruling. The citizens of Canyon Creek simply wanted to change a polling place from the garage of one of the residents to a school. In Canyon Creek, there is no history of discrimination in voting. But, in order to change polling places they needed the permission of the federal government. I guess that was too onerous a procedure. The Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District 1's district board members, funded by the Project on Fair Representation, a conservative advocacy group that challenges race-based government policies, challenged the need for Justice Department preclearance or sought to strike down Section 5 altogether.
Prior to this past Monday's ruling, nothing smaller than a county could seek such an exemption.
There are three things disturbing about this ruling:
First, there is the language of the majority. Chief Justice John Robert's majority opinion, reads as if the election of Barack Obama as president, brought to an end the era in which the rights of voters, particularly minority voters needed to be protected. "...Roberts, writing for the majority, forged a consensus between the court's liberal and conservative wings by limiting the ruling's impact — and by acknowledging Section 5's accomplishments even while questioning its legal relevance to modern America."
""Things have changed in the South. (Minority) voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions ... are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.""
Perhaps the Chief Justice's clerks forgot about the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004!
Scondly, the vote was 8-1 in a ruling that decided to expand the jurisdictions eligible for exemptions from Section 5. The justice who wanted to strike down Section 5? None other than Clarence Thomas:
"There is no evidence that public officials stand ready, if given the chance, to again engage in concerted acts of violence, terror and subterfuge in order to keep minorities from voting...the lack of current evidence of intentional discrimination with respect to voting renders [Section 5] unconstitutional.”
I...Oh never mind!
Thirdly, southern states have been chomping at the bit to get Section 5 overturned. Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, for example, said after the ruling, "I look forward to the day when this provision is either ruled unconstitutional, or, if ruled constitutional, then applied to all 50 states rather than singling out a few.” For the most part, the 17 states for whom this statue exists, feel stigmatized and 'embarrassed' by their legacy of terrorism at the ballot box that made the voting rights act necessary in the first place.
I'm sorry. I'm just not in sympathy with those who feel that it only takes a generation to wipe out the vestiges of one of the darkest chapters in our country's history.
Nor am I particularly moved by those who say that they are 'tired' of conversations about race. In the compromise of 1877, the backroom deal that gave Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency, ended Reconstruction. The withdrawal of troops from the south to ensure the protection of newly freed slaves took place 12 scant years after the Civil War ended. Most historians attribute the willingness to compromise with 'war weariness' and 'fatigue' with the issue of slavery and the freed blacks. But that compromise not only withdrew northern troops from the soil of the south, it ended the vote for black people and halted the election of blacks to public office. It took 100 years before those rights were regained. A key element in regaining those rights? The 1965 Voting Rights Act.
That legislation was passed when I was 9 years old, by the way. Which mean that it wasn't all that long ago, when an African-American took his or her life in their hands by merely voicing their intent to vote in some of those 17 states.
Are there beatings and murders to intimidate minority voters now? No. Poll taxes? No? Ridiculous tests like counting jelly beans in a jar, or reciting the Constitution and interpreting it? Not anymore. But there are more than a few ways in which minorities are intimidated at the ballot. And until the dominant culture learns that citizens of color and different ethnicity are not privileged guests in this country but at home, the Voting Rights Act and Section 5 should stay in place.
I can say 'No' to this bailout and without stammering.