It did not “gut” the act. Nor does it pave the way for a return to the era of poll taxes, voter intimidation and Jim Crow. Not even close, despite what court critics were quick to charge.
Rather, the court ruled 5-4 that certain states might still be required to get preclearance from the U.S. Justice Department for changes in their voting rules; but — and here’s the important part — the determination of which jurisdictions must do so must be made by Congress based on current data. Not demographic and other information from 40 years ago, when the law was passed. And not information from 1972, the last time it was updated.
For any Rip Van Winkles out there, this country has undergone dramatic changes in demographics and attitudes since 1965. One need look no further than the White House, to cite just one highly pertinent example.
Here’s another: There was a 63.2 percentage-point gap in 1965 between the white and black voter registration rates in one of the states in question, Mississippi. By 2004, blacks were 3.8 percentage points more likely to be registered in that state than whites.
As U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) aptly put it on Tuesday, “The South does not have the characteristics it did 60-something years ago.”
The federal government doesn’t base school funding on demographic data from 1965. Federal spending is not apportioned based on Census data from the mid-1960s. Secretary of State John Kerry is not basing his diplomacy on The Rand McNally 1965 Map of the World. So why should the Voting Rights Act be handcuffed to stale data?
Chief Justice John Roberts noted, “In the first decade after enactment of [Section 5] the Attorney General objected to 14.2 percent of proposed voting changes. In the last decade before reenactment, the Attorney General objected to a mere 0.16 percent.”
In other words, the Voting Rights Act has done its job. And there’s no question it was a job that needed doing. But rather than celebrate the law’s success, many on the left still cling to a long outdated view of the United States — and the South in particular — as deeply and incorrigibly prejudiced. They speak as if we are but one court ruling, or one election, away from sliding back into the segregation era.
Yet as we noted above, the Voting Rights Act is still in place. Those who think their voting rights have been negatively impacted can still sue whatever government is involved.
The ruling merely requires that current, not obsolete, information be used in determining which jurisdictions must seek pre-clearance before elections. And it says, in effect, that the time for punishing today’s Georgians and other Southerners for the misdeeds of their ancestors is over.
It’s about time.