Back to square one

Author: Barrett Rainey

While the U.S. Supreme Court gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) can probably be strictly legally supported, minorities in this country have even more to fear. The decision – questionable or not – throws their future access to the polls into the hands of the most do-nothing, divided, regressive and inoperable congress in recent history. And that ain’t good.

The challenge to the VRA was based primarily on Section 5 – that portion requiring certain states and other government entities holding elections to get advance U.S. Justice Department approval of their election rules if they appeared on a list of locales where previous election discrimination had been proven. In the 1960’s. The plaintiff’s argument was basically “We’ve changed and what we intentionally did wrong before we don’t do anymore so we shouldn’t be forced to comply with a 48-year-old decision.”

While the Justices bought that dubious claim 5-4 – apparently believing previous discriminatory practices had likely ended – the question is: have they? Some new serious statistical evidence suggests – they haven’t.

Law professors Christopher Elmendorf and Douglas Spencer (University of California Cal-Davis and University of Connecticut) have published a study arguing “the list of states required to obtain federal approval under VRA ‘remarkably mirrors the geography of anti-black prejudice’ in the United States today.”

“What we generated,” Elmendorf said, “is an answer to the question whether racial voting conditions in specific states had really changed which was asked by the chief justice during oral arguments. Defendant was unable to answer.”

Using a 2008 National Annenberg Election Survey, the professors asked non-blacks to rank their own racial group against blacks regarding intelligence, trustworthiness and work ethic. Respondents ranked their racial group above blacks by an average of 15 points in each category.

The results were striking. Their mathematical model suggests, of the states with the highest percentage of people biased against blacks, six are Southern: Lousiana, Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. All had been previously required to seek fed approval for election law changes under the VRA based on past bad practices. But no longer.

Two other states – Arizona and Alaska – also were required to get government approval of voting changes. But Elmendorf and Spencer note, while those two ranked much lower in black bias, their data indicates Arizona’s significant bias is against Hispanics and Alaska’s is anti-Native American.

Certainly some racial bias likely exists in all states. But – no matter how the researchers crunched the numbers in this example – “the Deep South states went right to the top,” according to Elmendorf.

So, let’s take stock. SCOTUS says things have changed racially. The above-cited survey – and others – show the same old bias’s still exist. Which leaves the whole thing up to 535 people who can’t agree on what time it is or whose watch to use. If that’s not bad enough, states-after-Republican-controlled-states are doing their damndest to stop minorities from registering and voting. At a time in our political history when we need some stability, SCOTUS tipped the scales to even more serious problems.

Minorities have a right to worry about being disenfranchised. Responsible Americans in the majority should be equally concerned. Speaker Boehner has proven he can’t even pass gas let alone serious legislation. It’s quite likely his farm bill debacle will be followed by a similar disaster dealing with any immigration bill that accidentally makes it to the upper house. And, failing some prompt corrective action on voting rights in Congress, the offending states will continue to be hellbent on cutting access to the vote. That’s not just speculation. It’s been happening for several elections. Even in some of the states on the now-defunct list of violators.

We’ve got a long string of domino s here. The right of full, free access to the voting booth needs the support of the court. But to get effective court backup, justices need to be presented with a new law that meets constitutional standards. But such a corrective law must come out of a congress that is useless and hopelessly ineffective. Without such a law, states that have proven they’ll deny voting access to non-whites have free range to construct all sorts of barriers. Barriers that would have to be broken by – wait for it – the U.S. Supreme Court.

Minority access to the vote is as much in danger today as it was in 1965. What the Hell happened?

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