Guarding Ballot Access

Our View: Even In The Age Of Obama, The 1965 Voting Rights Act Is Still Relevant

April 30, 2009

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been called the most effective piece of civil rights legislation in American history. Unlike the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial segregation in schools, public places and employment but granted Congress only limited powers of enforcement, the Voting Rights Act gave the federal government direct oversight of election procedures in 16 states and counties, mostly in the South, that had a long history of disenfranchising minority voters.

A key provision of the law, known as Section 5, required officials in those jurisdictions to get permission from the Justice Department before making any change in election procedures that might affect minority voting rights.

But on Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether Section 5 is still relevant in an era when thousands of minority officials have been elected across the country and Barack Obama holds office as the first African-American president.

The case was brought by a district in Texas, a state covered by the original 1965 law. But the district itself wasn't established until the late 1980s, and it has no history of discrimination. It argued it should not be required to get federal approval of its election procedures.

The narrow constitutional point the court must decide is whether Congress overstepped its authority by applying Section 5 to districts with no history of discrimination. But the broader issue involves the extent to which racially discriminatory practices persist in determining the outcome of elections. In the years since it was enacted, Section 5 has been used to block more than 1,000 attempts to limit access to the ballot, from restrictive registration rules and voter roll purges to locating polling places in areas inaccessible to minority voters. That the law undoubtedly helped deter many other discriminatory schemes by state and local officials suggests there is still a need for the act's protections.

In a related case last month involving voting rights in North Carolina, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who is expected to cast the crucial vote in the case heard Wednesday, acknowledged that "racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history," and that "much remains to be done to ensure that citizens of all races have equal opportunity to share and participate in our democratic processes and traditions."

That's a reality Congress clearly was aware of when it reauthorized Section 5 in 2006. The election of a black president surely has helped change the nation's political culture, but Mr. Obama and thousands of other black officials across the country all owe their election in part to the political empowerment of minorities made possible by the Voting Rights Act. Attorney General Eric Holder has said his Justice Department will make voting rights a top priority of the Obama administration. Equal access to the ballot is basic to a democracy, and we hope the court, which has repeatedly upheld the Voting Rights Act in the past, will continue to allow the federal government to vigorously pursue that goal.

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