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Battle over Voting Rights Act before U.S. Supreme Court

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

One of the GOP’s fondest wishes has been to kill the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. Twice it floated several trial balloons in Congress. The first one was in 1981, when the Act came up for renewal. The deal in the initial passage of the Act was that it be renewed every 25 years.

A few hardline ultraconservatives in the administration of then President Reagan made some loud threats to push Reagan to oppose its renewal. They were just that: idle threats. Reagan, with no fanfare, signed the renewal legislation.

However, the threats were a portent of things to come. When the Act came up for renewal again in 2006, the threats to thwart the law turned into a mini-movement in Congress to delay or even block passage. A pack of House Republicans stalled the legislation for more than a week and demanded that hearings be held.

They used the same old argument that it punishes the South for past voting-discrimination sins, and they didn’t like the idea of bilingual ballots. Bush signed the renewal order. But the GOP had served notice that the early saber rattle against the act was a just a warm-up for a full throttle frontal assault.

The GOP pecked at the Act with the rash of photo identification laws that the GOP governors and GOP-controlled state legislatures enacted in recent years. The aim was to discourage and reduce the number of minority and poor voters that overwhelmingly vote Democratic.

It backfired. Black and Hispanic voters thumbed their noses at the GOP’s voter suppression ploys and packed voting booths again in mass numbers in 2012.

The 2012 presidential election result was the final tipping point for the GOP. Though it maintained its tight grip on the five Deep South states and other Old Confederacy states, almost exclusively with the majority votes of white conservatives, the increasing number of blacks and Hispanics poses a threat to continued GOP dominance in those states — that is, if there are no barriers to their registering and voting.

The GOP’s hoped-for trump card is the Supreme Court. The conservatives on the court read the election tea leaves and, three days after President Obama’s reelection, announced that they would take up a challenge to the Act. They dropped strong hints that they may well vote to gut the Act. Justice Anthony Kennedy said he was troubled by the provisions.

Chief Justice John Roberts bluntly said that things have changed in the South and that blacks supposedly vote everywhere in the South without any barriers or prohibitions. Clarence Thomas, to no surprise, went even further and flatly called Section 5 of the Act unconstitutional and left no doubt that if and when he had the chance, he’d knock the Act out completely.

The hook is the federal lawsuit by Shelby County, Ala., that claims the Act is outdated, discriminatory and a blatant federal intrusion into state’s rights. The lawsuit explicitly wants the centerpiece of the Act, Section 5, dumped. This is the provision that mandates that states get “preclearance” from the Justice Department before making any changes in voting procedures. State attorney generals in several states have endorsed the Alabama county’s challenge.

The claims that the Act is a waste since blacks and Hispanics vote whenever and wherever they please is nonsense. Even though black and Hispanic voters did vote in big numbers in the 2012 election, in many districts they still had to stand in endless lines, have their IDs thoroughly scrutinized, had no bilingual ballots, found voting hours shortened and had to file legal challenges in state and federal courts to get injunctions to stop the more onerous of the voter suppression laws from being enforced.

This was only part of the story of the roadblocks the GOP has devised. A study by the Alliance for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest group, documented legions of complaints and challenges filed by the Justice Department and voting rights groups to discriminatory changes that county registrars have made to eliminate or narrow down the number of voters in predominantly minority districts.

There was never any real threat that Congress would have dared do away with the Act, despite the GOP’s harsh warnings and wishes. But the actions of many state officials, attorney generals and now the Supreme Court that threaten the Act are a grave warning that the GOP may finally get its wish. And that’s to gut, if not outright end, the Voting Rights Act.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.