As you may or may not know, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 recently turned 50, resulting in a flurry of news stories both celebrating the act’s many accomplishments, and lamenting the fact that a central tenant of the law, known as “preclearance,” had been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. Under preclearance, certain (mostly southern) districts with a history of race-based voter suppression were not allowed to implement any new voting laws without getting them precleared by the federal government. In striking down this crucial portion of the act, the supremes declared the law had done its job, and the covered districts should not be singled out for racist activity that happened many years ago.
The fig leaf that covered this blatantly disingenuous reasoning was that the U.S. Congress could always resubmit an updated map of problematic districts, and thus reinstate preclearance for areas of the country that still needed it. Of course, the idea that a bitterly divided congress could agree on what to have for lunch, much less which districts in the U.S. discriminated against minorities, was always laughable, at best. The current Republican position is crystal clear: “Racism? What racism?” As U.S. Representative Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, recently explained to the Roanoke Times, “The fact of the matter is we have a Voting Rights Act; it is very strong. We are certainly willing to look at any new evidence of discrimination if there is a need to take any measures. But at this point in time, we have not seen that.”
In reality, many states—including Virginia—immediately took advantage of the Supreme Court decision to pass incredibly regressive and restrictive laws that required voters to produce an approved government ID to gain entry to the polls, while also doing away with such proven franchise-enhancing measures as extended voting hours and same-day voter registration.
Still, after years of losing ground, there are hopeful signs that the Voting Rights Act still has enough teeth to curb the worst excesses of these new vote-suppression tactics. A raft of lawsuits challenging both voter ID laws and race-based gerrymandering have found success in many states, including Texas—where a federal appeals court recently struck down the Lone Star state’s toughest-in-the-nation voter ID law—and Virginia, where Republican efforts to maintain district boundaries that have repeatedly been ruled illegal just hit a wall.
Although Virginia’s elephants had hoped to delay a court order requiring them to redraw the lines of the commonwealth’s 3rd District (which was crafted to contain as many African-American voters as possible), a panel of federal judges recently denied their request, basically forcing them to deal with Governor Terry McAuliffe on the issue.
Although we don’t have great hope that an upcoming special legislative session called by McAuliffe will produce substantive results, it will be another baby step toward addressing the systematic disenfranchisement of poor and minority voters in Virginia. And it will set the stage for the inevitable Supreme Court cases examining both voter ID laws and racial gerrymandering practices nationwide. At that moment, the supremes will finally have a chance to undo some of the damage they previously visited upon the Voting Rights Act.
We can only hope and pray that they have since seen the error of their ways.
Odd Dominion is an unabashedly liberal, twice- monthly op-ed column covering Virginia politics.