A Feb. 27 Post and Courier editorial argued that Section V of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is currently under review by the United States Supreme Court, should be overturned because it was designed to deal with racial circumstances 48 years ago and that oversight is no longer needed. Things have changed in most of the states required to “pre-clear” any voting or electoral changes since 1965, but that change is still a work in progress.
As the Rev. Al Sharpton said at a Feb. 27 rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court — Jim Crow laws were overturned five decades ago, but James Crow Jr., Esquire is still alive, well and active. The recent history leading up to the last general election reminds us of that.
South Carolina was among many states that all suddenly decided to enact new photo voter ID laws to counteract statistically non-existent “voter fraud.” Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act forced our state to defend that law in federal court, and the result was instructive. What was initially a firm requirement that all voters provide a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship suddenly gave way to a far easier path to vote — including simply going to the voter registration office with one’s old card and providing a date of birth and the last four digits of one’s Social Security number, or obtaining a Department of Motor Vehicles ID Card — which is now free because of the new law.
That procedural retreat was necessary because the intent of the original law was plain — to disenfranchise some voters because of their race or class. Section 5-based challenges also led to changes in recent laws and policies in other states — like Florida — where early voting was all but eliminated but had to be reinstated.
The intent of the recent wave of voter ID laws was well stated by a senior Pennsylvania GOP official who said that their new law would assure that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would win the state. That didn’t work, and President Obama comfortably won the national popular and electoral votes because voters who would have been disenfranchised by laws that were reviewed because of Section 5 went to the polls in record numbers.
That reality, combined with the Republican Party’s new struggle to reach a new, less white electorate, speaks to the cultural and racial changes in America and to how the new wave of voter ID laws was meant to combat America’s new population reality.
It’s also instructive to note that the case before the U.S. Supreme Court comes out of Shelby County, Ala. Shelby County gerrymandered the county’s council districts less than 10 years ago in a way that eliminated the county’s only African-American majority district. The county filed suit after a Section 5 challenge overturned that gerrymandered district.
America has evolved since 1965, but we still have a long way to go. The divisive tactics employed by candidate Romney’s political team in the last general election say so, as does the amazing spectacle of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia characterizing a law that assures minority voters the right to vote as a “racial entitlement” — in an America where historical and present “white entitlement” would take an entire editorial page to describe.
I confess that I almost have a point of agreement with the “Unfair presumption of guilt” editorial. Since the American South’s discriminatory tactics have become a national political strategy, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act should ideally cover all 50 states, so that those in Michigan and Pennsylvania trying to change the way that presidential Electoral College members are chosen would have to “pre-clear” those changes. The sad reality, however, is that a divisive Congress determined to fight against President Obama at every turn would never pass or restructure an effective Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was reauthorized in 2006 — with the affirmative votes of both of the Alabama senators who represent Shelby County — and was signed by President George W. Bush.
That was deemed necessary by Congress seven years go, and the law — including Section 5 — is still needed today to safeguard “liberty and justice for all.”
The Rev. Joseph A. Darby is first vice president of the Charleston Branch NAACP and senior pastor of Morris Brown AME Church.