By Tom Baxter
Few big developments have been telegraphed as thoroughly as last month’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling voiding Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, so it was no surprise the response from all concerned was nimble.
It took almost no time at all after the court’s ruling was published for several of the Southern states which had been held in check by the law to bound forward with plans to implement voter ID laws and maps that faced Justice Department review. And it took only slightly longer than that for liberal groups to begin mass fundraising appeals based on the impending outrage.
One need look no further than the Fulton County Commission map to see that the ruling could have a major impact on politics in America fairly quickly. But it isn’t so certain, in a country trending steadily toward greater demographic diversity, what the impact of the ruling will be in the long run.
The court did give the states and counties which have had to clear any voting changes with the Justice Department a new license to change the rules which were enacted to insure that minority voters weren’t discriminated against, as they historically had been before 1965. But it left in place the means for minority voters to challenge those rules, insuring gainful employment for a generation of lawyers.
It will be up to the courts in many cases to decide whether new voting restrictions are legal or not, but another question, just as important politically, is whether they will be effective if allowed to stand. The last election is a cautionary tale in this regard. Fewer early voting days and sterner ID requirements, combined with disappointment over Barack Obama’s first term, were supposed to add up to a great falling off of minority turnout, and a great white advantage, imperceptible in the polls but self-evident on election day. The opposite happened: resentment over the perceived efforts to curtail voting served only to pump up African-American turnout, at last pushing it past the level of whites.
Whether or not the racial attitudes of whites in the South have changed dramatically since the 1960s, as proponents of the ruling argue, the voting habits of African-Americans certainly have.
We knew back in the ‘60s that African-American turnout trailed white turnout, and that generally, educational attainment was associated with stronger turnout. What began to be apparent by the 1990s was that when the average educational level of African-Americans rose, voter turnout relative to whites rose even faster. So those who say we’ll never go back to the bad old days of the ‘60s are right, if not for the reasons that comfort them. Any attempt to put the genie back in the bottle becomes very problematic.
The court’s ruling is likely to reinforce the emerging pattern in U.S. politics which favors Republicans at the level of state legislative and congressional elections and Democrats at the presidential level. It’s in the smaller elections that what might seem innocuous changes in ballot locations or district maps can in reality have an impact, and that’s where the conservatives who hailed the ruling already hold the advantage. But over-reaching attempts to cement power at this level could backfire in statewide and presidential races.
The court’s remedy for throwing out the preclearance section of the voting law — the guts, as it has been viewed, of the legislation — is to have Congress rewrite it to reflect more current information about voting patterns.
“If everyone will sit back and take a deep breath,” that task can be accomplished, Sen. Johnny Isakson said recently. But considering that Congress can’t even pass a farm bill, the odds of being able to recraft the thorniest part of the voting law, the part that deals with where discrimination is agreed to have taken place, seem remote.
It’s instructive to look back at the original vote on the 1965 bill. For all the grand drama that went into its passage, it wasn’t even close: 77-19 in the Senate and 335-85 in the House, with solid Democratic and even solider Republican majorities. The thundering filibusters by Southern opponents of the bill seem relatively toothless, in retrospect, and compared to the problems waiting for a voting bill in today’s partisan climate.
It’s interesting to note that while the blowback over the ruling rages, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has moved forward without much national notice on a plan to restore voting rights for certain nonviolent felons. As the action by this conservative Republican governor reflects, Republicans really are conflicted on the issue of voting rights, inclined to entertain some ideas about voter fraud that Democrats find ludicrous, while at the same time conscious that neither party has completely lived up to the obligation to hold free and fair elections.
Given that, it’s to the advantage of those in both parties not to leave the bill in shambles. But it would be a wonder if they all saw it that way.