VRA Ruling: In Need of Great Expectations

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“Half a century ago, the amazing courage of Rosa Parks, the visionary leadership of Martin Luther King, and the inspirational actions of the civil rights movement led politicians to write equality into the law and make real the promise of America for all her citizens.  But in the fight for justice and the struggle for freedom, there is no end, because there is so much more to do to ensure that every human being can fulfill their potential.”

–David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was created to fulfill the promise of equality to all citizens of the United States. By granting the federal government oversight over state voting regulations, they were able to end the most egregiously discriminatory laws, including poll taxes and near-impossible “literacy tests.” Over the last half-century, the VRA has helped protect the voices of millions of citizens. But it is that very success that has recently helped the Supreme Court decide to effectively prevent the VRA’s enforcement, a la Shelby County vs Holder. They believe that we have progressed as a country and that our worries are largely behind us. Chief Justice John Roberts writes in the majority opinion:

“By the time the Act was reauthorized in 2006, there had been 40 more years of it…During that time, largely because of the Voting Rights Act, voting tests were abolished, disparities in voter registration and turnout due to race were erased, and African-Americans attained political office in record numbers.”

Unfortunately, by comparing ourselves to the past, the Supreme Court has sold our future short. By saying we are doing well enough, the Court diminishes the potential of our nation, resigning us to merely moderate inclusivity. Our country is capable of so much more, but we are at risk of becoming so much less. The abolition of blatantly racist legislation was just the beginning. We now face far subtler, but equally insidious, forces in voter ID laws and racial gerrymandering, and the court has left the door wide open.

The decision by the court immediately will free Texas, South Carolina, and Mississippi to pursue voter ID laws. Texas has already charged ahead with theirs. These laws sound noble in purpose. They seek to protect the purity of American elections by preventing mass voter fraud from illegal immigrants. The charge that United States elections are rife with invalid ballots, however, is simply untrue. The statistics are staggering. Between 2000 and 2010 there have been 13 cases of in-person voter fraud (the kind vote ID laws are supposed to protect against) while over 649 million votes were tallied in general elections. It’s more common for someone to be killed by dogs, lightning, or falling out of a bed then it is for them to commit voter fraud. Why, then, has there been a recent charge to increase voting restrictions? The answer is largely political.

There is no politically delicate way to say it: voter ID laws favor Republicans and that is why they are by far more popular in red states. When listing his party’s accomplishments for the year, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai noted that Pennsylvania had passed “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania. Done.” The laws help Republicans by excluding the minority youth vote, a predominately Democratic demographic. Over 700,000 young African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders we prevented from voting due to voter ID laws in the 2012 election, when only a handful of states enforced the restrictions. As the laws proliferate more of the youth vote, more democrats will inevitably be removed from the voter pool.

But voter ID laws are not the most troubling consequence of Shelby County. They only allow the party in power to indirectly tinker with demographics. Far worse is the newfound freedom that Republicans have to shape districts to their own choosing. Texas again is leading the charge and is already considering shifting their districts so that Republicans gain even more influence in their House legislature. The district that elected the newly famous Wendy Davis, for example, would be unrecognizable under their newly drawn lines, since they no longer have to worry about minority turnout or federal oversight, they can simply shape districts in whatever way benefits their party best—without even waiting for an excuse like a census. Republicans are losing the demographic war. They know it and so does the country. Instead of changing their views and evolving, they are attempting to shift political districts and electoral math. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court is helping them do it.

Perhaps the Court’s ruling was Constitutional, but the argument they presented ignores the deeper cultural undercurrents of our society. Merely because we have made progress does not mean we have arrived at our destination, and merely because we have helped the African-Americans that the VRA set out initially to protect does not mean that the VRA has lost all purpose. The VRA was, at the time it was signed, one of the single largest steps forward for civil rights in the history of the United States. Now, its repeal could represent one of the largest steps back.

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