Well, today has not been a great day for anyone who cares about civil rights. In a not-so-surprising move, the Roberts Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, in effect gutting major portions of act. Section 4 is the basis for which jurisdictions are covered by Section 5 (mandatory pre-clearance of any new voting law to ensure no minority groups are harmed). So without Section 4, Section 5 is, for the moment, toothless and therefore, worthless. While I’m not surprised by the outcome (5-4, with the conservatives voting against), I am surprised by my visceral reaction. I had to stay off twitter for a while and let my anger subside. I guess somewhere deep down inside, I still held out hope that somehow, someway, they would do the right thing and hold up the VRA.
It is important to note that the VRA has been reauthorized by Congress four times since initial passage, include the overwhelming 2006 votes: The House vote was 390-33, the Senate 98-0! But this court decided that they knew best and overturned what is arguably one of the most important and effective laws ever passed.
And oddly enough, it is that effectiveness that apparently helped persuade the court to rule the way they did. Bear with me now. In his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out that that in some of the states currently (well before 10:00am today) covered under Section 5 saw a greater black voter turnout rate than whites. Um, what? That’s akin to saying “gee, this drug I’m taking to regulate my disease makes me feel better. I should just stop using it.” Or, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote in her dissent, “Throwing out preclearance…is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
What’s that expression? Causation doesn’t equal correlation? One would think the most learned lawyers in the land would know that. It could very well be that black turnout increased BECAUSE the VRA was in effect. It could also be the case that black voter turnout increased IN SPITE of the attempts of some to make voting more difficult (as I wrote after the election, many African Americans were voting out of anger). Let’s be clear. In 2012, thanks to the VRA, many hideous voter ID laws were struck down. Yet even with that, blacks were still like to wait twice as long as white to vote. I shudder to think about what is going to happen now that Section 4 is no more.
So what happens now? The ball is in Congress’s court. Yeah. UH-OH. This is the same Congress who can’t pass bills that used to have bipartisan support, let alone any slightly controversial legislation. And I’m sure some of you are thinking “Well, wait, if they passed it almost unanimously in 2006, why wouldn’t it pass now?” One reason is because now you’re asking them to not just vote on an existing list. You’re asking them to come up with an entirely new list of jurisdictions to fall under federal supervision. As polarized as our Congress is, especially in the gerrymandered house, I have a hard time seeing how something like this gets done anytime soon. Not with this current makeup anyway. But unfortunately, that’s what we’re left with at the moment. Congress, sweet dysfunctional Congress, has to come up with a fix for this.
My heart hurts today because I know that somewhere John Lewis was watching this ruling come down, and was thinking about what he marched and was beaten for all those years ago. My heart aches at his words today: “What the Supreme Court did was to put a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act.” Justice Ginsburg said “Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the Voting Rights Act.” I couldn’t agree more.