Changing Voting Rights Rules

February 02, 1992

The Supreme Court has just demonstrated starkly how far to the right it has been tugged by the Reagan-Bush appointees of the past decade. By a 6-3 vote it turned its back on a long, unbroken line of precedents regarding the Voting Rights Act -- and rebuffed the Bush Justice Department's own interpretation of the law in the process.

Section 5 of the act requires subdivisions in states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to "pre-clear" changes in elections laws and procedures that could have a discriminatory effect. States, cities and counties could not change the manner of voting, candidacy requirements and district lines, nor could they transfer important powers among officials, without first submitting their plans to the attorney general for scrutiny.

Some changes of the last sort are arguable as to their discriminatory effect, but the courts have uniformly agreed with the attorney general's right to pre-clear (or veto) them. The Justice Department has pre-cleared almost all submitted to it. But the Supreme Court now has said this constitutes a burden and an interference with federalism.

It is hard to comprehend the court's action in this case. Two Alabama counties that had rigged election procedures to insure the election of whites only to their county commissions got their first black members (thanks to the Voting Rights Act). The traditional practice of letting each council member handle the key matter of road-building and maintenance in his own district was changed -- without pre-clearance -- to give that power to the council majority, which is white, of course.

Thus, black voters who finally won the right to elect council members directly responsive to them find that the council's public works awards have been taken out of the new member's hands by six Reagan-Bush appointees on the Supreme Court. This decision means other localities so disposed (and there are plenty) will do something similar.

The goal of the Voting Rights Act was always understood as a means of giving all citizens equal political rights. For the court now to say to those previously disenfranchised by clever manipulation, intimidation and worse that the act protects their right to vote but not the right of those they elect to meaningful participation in governing is a cruel mockery of the law and of American ideals.

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