Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion last week when the Supreme Court struck down a major section of the Voting Rights Act, first passed in 1965. Roberts claimed that much had changed in 48 years concerning black voting. He doesn't get out much.
The original Voting Rights Act Section 4 required certain states — mostly in the South, the Old Confederacy, but also areas of northern states — to get federal approval before changing voting laws. The VRA was renewed with an overwhelming bipartisan vote in 2006 and signed by President George W. Bush. The activist Roberts court declared Section 4 unconstitutional but left intact Section 5, which is the enforcement of Section 4.
There are a lot of variables involved in the decision, chief among them Roberts' claim that times have changed and such federal supervision is no longer necessary. It's true that poll taxes, literacy tests and other barriers to the polls are a thing of the past. But there are current limitations on voting that are just as insidious and mostly affect minority voters.
South Carolina and Texas, two states in Section 4, will now proceed with voter ID laws that had been held up by the feds. Other states such as North Carolina (40 of 100 counties in Section 4) have passed laws to limit voting hours and restrict absentee ballot periods.
All of these voting restrictions hit minority voters hardest. Oddly enough, just a few days before the court's demolition of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County, Ala., v. Holder, Arizona lost a case that required proof of citizenship to vote. But isn't that holding a state to federal voting standards, which is what the VRA does?
Roberts also calls on state's rights as a reason to gut the VRA, raising the question of how the Arizona ruling doesn't violate state's rights.
In his opinion, Roberts wrote that getting federal permission to change voting laws, violates "the fundamental principle of equal sovereignty" of the states. To which Richard Posner, a jurist appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago, said that he'd never heard of such a principle because there is no such principle.
When Roberts was a lawyer in Reagan's justice department, he wrote memos against the Voting Rights Act. When Shelby County v. Holder came to the court, Roberts couldn't resist striking down a lifelong obsession.
To review, there was politics involved in the decision as well as activist jurisprudence that conservatives use to howl against. There was an elevation of state's rights over the individual right to vote. There was inconsistency with the Arizona ruling. And there was ignorance concerning what really goes on as states remake voting laws.
Congress is the only answer here. A new Section 4 strengthening federal oversight into various state voting laws is necessary. In order to satisfy Roberts' concerns, put every state and jurisdiction under federal oversight so no one will feel singled out.
Not many things we do as citizens are more important than voting. If war is too important to be left up to the generals, voting is too important to be left up to the states.
In summary A new Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act strengthening federal oversight into various state voting laws is necessary.