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Don’t give up on the Voting Rights Act

| Thursday, August 27, 2015

An extremely fine line exists between proper federal authority and an imposition upon states’ Constitutional rights, especially when it comes to voting laws. While voter ID and absentee voting laws dominate the media, these are all propelled by one piece of legislation — one that was recently changed: the Voting Rights Act. The effects of this change could be extreme.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson pushed the United States forward with the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Long overdue, this landmark legislation was deemed the turning point in the fight for all-inclusive voting rights. However, buried within this well-intentioned legislation is a coverage formula (outlined in section 4(b) of the law) designed to target states that, as of that time, were believed to have enacted inequitable voting laws. Section 4(b) provides that if the voting and population data of a particular state yields an unsatisfactory result after application of a complicated algorithm, the state would be placed under federal preclearance, meaning that the United States Attorney General would have to approve all voting law changes within a pre-cleared state before that law could be implemented. Masked behind noble intentions, this section unfairly targeted mostly Southern states which had historically cast a majority of votes for Republican candidates, such as Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Virginia.

In June 2013, the Supreme Court, in a close 5-to-4 decision, corrected this inequity when it ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that the coverage formula was unconstitutional. The Court agreed that the formula was based on outdated information and should be discarded, but that Congress should not throw out the idea of reviewing state voter legislation totally. They wanted Congress to go back to the drawing board. However, Congress simply annulled section 4(b), therefore wholly eliminating preclearance of violating states’ voting laws.

The Court’s decision has been roundly criticized as a step backwards in voter’s rights, but such criticism is misplaced. The Supreme Court’s rejection of the formulaic provisions of the VRA will ultimately promote more equitable and inclusive voting rights in those states subject to the statute — in fact, it already has.

Section 4(b) was outdated and unfairly burdened certain states. The jurisdictions targeted by section 4(b) may have been areas of voter suppression in the 60s, but those unacceptable conditions have improved tremendously. For example, according to The Economist, “in 1965 a mere 6.7 percent of African American voters in Mississippi were registered; by 1988 the proportion was 74.2 percent. That year in Louisiana, as in Texas and Georgia in 2004, a higher proportion of African Americans than Caucasians were registered to vote.” Voting rights climates in targeted states have thankfully evolved.

More surprising is the climate of states not covered by the formula.  For example, according to a June 2013 New York Times report, Massachusetts, which is not covered by sections 4 of the VRA, had the greatest disparity in registration between Caucasians and African Americans during the 2012 Presidential election. Furthermore, as Chief Justice John Roberts observed in the Shelby County opinion, in the 2012 election, “African-American voter turnout exceeded white voter turnout in five of the six States originally covered.” The nine states under original preclearance simply no longer represent the problems in the American election landscape.

The cataclysmic consequences, which many predicted would flow from the County decision, simply have not come to pass. As we reach the second anniversary of the Court’s opinion, a number of states, including many of those targeted Southern states, have passed laws which have unquestionably benefited all voters, laws such as those permitting online voter registration. Following the Court’s opinion, many of the states formerly subject to the preclearance requirements of the VRA also have enacted other voter related laws which have received wide support. For example, many of these states have enacted voter identification laws designed to prevent fraud in elections. The Washington Post has reported that 75% of Americans support the notion that photo identification ought to be a prerequisite to vote. The presumption made in many circles that states formerly subject to section 4(b) would, after the Shelby County opinion, enact laws suppressing the right to vote, particularly among minority communities, has simply proven to be false.

What we see instead is that states with no preclearance requirement have witnessed poor voter outcomes. This begs the question: If preclearance set Southern states on a path towards successful polling practices, then shouldn’t all states be placed under preclearance? If yes, then Congress ought to redesign section 4(b). If 4(b) is not the reason we have seen change, then states should be given the right to decide their own fate. Sometimes, the states have it right and federal intervention is not necessary. Yet perhaps federal intervention is needed when it comes to a right as fundamental as suffrage. It is up to us to decide.

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About Jordan Ryan

Jordan Ryan, sophomore resident of Lyons Hall, studies Political Science and Peace Studies along with minors in Constitutional Studies and Business Economics. She can be reached at jryan15@nd.edu

Contact Jordan
  • what no really

    This is quite possibly the most ignorant and embarrassing thing I have ever seen published in this paper. And that is a very, very high bar to clear.

    http://prospect.org/article/22-states-wave-new-voting-restrictions-threatens-shift-outcomes-tight-races

    http://www.infoplease.com/us/government/voting-rights.html

    Voter ID laws aren’t passed to prevent “fraud” because that fraud does not now exist and has never existed. They are passed to prevent poor and largely minority voters from voting. Take it away PA House Majority Leader: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”

    I don’t know why the Observer is choosing to publish such misinformed garbage, but it truly is embarrassing. Please stop. To say that the jurisdictions subject to preclearance were “unfairly targeted” is simply to display the kind of ignorance that I am shocked to see at what is supposed to be a top university. Read a book.

    • Johnny Whichard

      Shut up with your ad hominem attacks. “fraud does not now exist and has never existed”….You don’t know that. Why don’t you drink a nice cup of reality, you arrogant twit.

      • Johnny Whichard

        Furthermore:

        http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/24-things-that-require-a-photo-id/article/2534254

        Voter ID is imperative for voting. Otherwise, the welfare state will grow to an even more unsustainable size. If you want to live in an Utopian society, just leave the country.

        • what no really

          “Stop with the ad hominems, you twit.” K.

          Anyway.

          Neither of those links does anything to refute what I said. And the first link is just dumb because the right to buy cigarettes is not a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution of the United States of America.

          Honest question: do you think the number of incidents of actual voter fraud outnumbers the number of people who are disenfranchised by voter ID laws?

          Some people are old and poor and live in remote areas. They can’t hop in a car and go get a state ID. This is documented. It actually happens! http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/texas-sees-surge-disenfranchised-voters

          The hallmark of the conservative is to be completely unable to see the world through a lens that is not his own. That’s why you can unironically and unthinkingly think to yourself “pft just get an ID, geeze.” That isn’t how it works for everyone.

          And please connect voter ID laws to restricting the growth of the welfare state. Are you implying that poor people should not vote because they will vote in favor of growing entitlement programs…? That’s pretty gross!

  • Over 1,350 people have signed our petition to Congress asking them to #RestoretheVRA. Please join us! http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/pass-the-voting-rights

  • GLC

    What No Really guy is a joke. People can hop in a car and travel miles to the voting place, but they can’t hop in said car and get an ID? Your own argument defeats itself. I have to leave my driver’s license with the principal’s office when I have lunch with my nephew or niece at their school. When I picked up a pkg at FedEx yesterday, you guessed it, I had to present a driver’s license. When I go to the airport, you guessed it again! Same when you check into a hotel, or rent a car, or want insurance, or check out a book from a library, etc.. Everything we do in life these days requires we validate our status. And we don’t balk at it. So, you want to vote? ID please? Truth is, there’s TONS of fraud going on; we read and hear about it after every election. And you do too. Everyone reading this has heard of ACORN? (which I will remind you, Obama represented when he was an atty). Remember the Dallas Cowboys’ names being used in that Nevada fraud incident? Remember the guy who showed up at Atty General Eric Holder’s voting place claiming to be Eric Holder, but said he forgot his ID, but they were going to let him vote anyway? And when he said he left it in his car and would go get it, they told him that this was unnecessary Remember that? We all do. The guy filmed it to make a point, and to show the reality. Oh, but fraud only happens in other states? Ha! Here in Northern Indiana, when a Bipartisan Election board reviewed 5,000 registration applications, the first 2,100 they looked at proved to be fraudulent. Lefties will try to convince you that fraud doesn’t exist because have an agenda, and these same people have the same reason to legalize all illegal aliens, to secure enough votes to keep them in power forever. They may call you racist, or sexist, or age-ist, or whatever, but that’s only because that’s all that’s left when their own lies and arguments defeat themsleves. Liberalism is a mental disorder. http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/10/09/acorn.fraud.claims/