The federal Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, in the aftermath of a bloody assault on voting-rights protesters in Selma, Ala.. The law remains one of the crowning achievements of the civil rights movement, but almost 50 years later, conservatives argue that important provisions of that law have outlived their usefulness.
There’s no question that the nation as a whole, and the South in particular, has made enormous strides over the past half century. Every American can take pride in those hard-won improvements. But has discrimination against minority voters in Georgia and other states disappeared to the point that federal intervention into state and local elections is no longer justified?
Ten years ago, I might have said yes. Not today. Passage of Georgia’s voter ID law back in 2005, and the legal battle that followed, changed my mind about the relevance of the Voting Rights Act, proving that it remains a necessary part of American law.
Today, Georgia’s voter ID law is cited by many conservatives and even some liberals as a national model. I have come to agree. While the Georgia law requires that a government-issued photo ID be presented when voting, it also attempts to ensure that voter identification is easy to obtain and is free for those who can’t afford it. As a result of that balance, there is little evidence that Georgia’s law has reduced minority participation.
However, that was not the case when the law was first passed. The initial bill that became law in 2005 made little attempt to make voter ID easily obtainable. It charged citizens $20 to $35 to obtain the necessary ID, which for poorer Americans can be a significant outlay of cash and might dissuade them from voting. And it gave voters no time to prepare for the law’s requirements.
That’s where the Voting Rights Act proved its merit. Lawsuits were filed, and federal judges immediately blocked Georgia’s voter ID law, ruling that it was an illegal effort to curtail minority voting. In 2006, the Georgia Legislature took the hint, rescinding its earlier law and replacing it with a much-improved bill. The new law offered voter identification for free, and required every Georgia county to issue such ID, removing the need for voters to travel long distances to obtain the document. The state also committed to a broad education effort to ensure that voters wouldn’t be surprised by the new law when they showed up at their precincts.
With those important improvements, federal courts upheld the new law. But those necessary, laudable improvements would not have taken place without the Voting Rights Act.
The law continues to prove itself necessary. In the midst of the heated 2012 campaign, a federal judge in Texas blocked that state’s new voter ID law, ruling that if put into effect the law would almost certainly lower minority participation. In that ruling, the judge specifically criticized the Texas law for not including safeguards contained in Georgia law.
In Florida last year, Republican state officials attempted to dramatically reduce early voting, an option that minority voters rely upon heavily. A federal appeals court used Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to block that move, noting that “a dramatic reduction in the form of voting that is disproportionately used by African-Americans would make it materially more difficult for some minority voters to cast a ballot.”
And last year, a three-judge appellate panel approved South Carolina’s new voter ID law for use in 2013 and thereafter, again citing Georgia’s landmark law as a standard. But Judge John W. Bates — an appointee of President George W. Bush — thought it important to note that without the specter of federal oversight, South Carolina legislators would have passed a law that was much more unfair.
“… one cannot doubt the vital function that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has played here,” Bates wrote. “Without the review process under the Voting Rights Act, South Carolina’s voter photo ID law certainly would have been more restrictive. Rather, the history of (the South Carolina law) demonstrates the continuing utility of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in deterring problematic, and hence encouraging non-discriminatory, changes in state and local voting laws.”
In Washington today, nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether Section 5 remains relevant. All-too-recent history proves that it is relevant indeed.
– Jay Bookman