Supreme Court’s voting rights decision harms minorities

Posted Thursday, Jun. 27, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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With its ruling on the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court has taken the country back to a time when racial minorities were not able to participate equitably in the voting process. The court’s unprecedented decision is disgraceful to civil rights leaders and legislators who have fought to preserve equal voting rights in this country.

It reminds me of a time when minorities were prevented from voting because they had to pay a poll tax before they could vote. The tax was a mean-spirited, vicious way of keeping hundreds of thousands of people from voting. The objection to eliminating the poll tax was that it would allow people of color to “flood the polls.”

I recall having to pay a poll tax to vote in Texas. The practice began in Texas in 1902 and didn’t end until 1966. During those 64 years, hundreds of thousands were denied the right to vote. The federal government prohibited use of a poll tax in national elections in 1964 with passage of the 24th Amendment to the Constitution.

The Supreme Court’s current assault on the Voting Rights Act prevents the federal government from ensuring that states with a history of racial discrimination will not enact voting procedures that will deny a very significant right and duty.

Prior to that, nine states, mostly in the South, had to receive clearance from the Justice Department or a federal court before they could make changes in voting methods or engage in redistricting.

In its ruling, the court did not alter Section Five. Instead, it ruled that the formula, detailed in Section Four, used to determine which states should be covered by Section Five, went beyond constitutional limits and used outdated data. The effect is to mute Section Five and allow states to amend voting procedures and practices as they see fit, without fear of federal intervention.

Those who advocated radical changes in the Voting Rights Act said that increasing numbers of racial minorities participated in state and national elections. They even pointed to the election of President Obama as a reason to eliminate federal oversight.

Since 2010, eight Southern states passed laws to make voting more cumbersome for racial minorities. Recently, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge said that without Section Five of the Voting Rights Act minority voters would suffer.

Efforts to lessen the impact of the minority vote in Texas have been egregious. Last summer, a federal court in Washington stated that a redistricting map enacted by the Republican-controlled legislature was “purposefully discriminatory.”

In 2012, the Texas NAACP and Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives went to federal court to stop the state from requiring a photo ID in state elections. A federal court agreed, finding that the law violated Section Five of the Voting Rights Act.

Bipartisan coalitions in both the House and Senate have historically supported the Voting Rights Act and its provisions. In 2006, the act was renewed for 25 years. The vote in the House was 390 to 30, and in the Senate 98 to 0. President George W. Bush signed the measure.

The Voting Rights Act is the perpetuation of our democracy. We are a great country because all of our citizens have the right to vote without fear of intimidation.

Congress must now do what we all know is the right thing.

We must again make the Voting Rights Act a piece of legislation that protects all of our citizens, regardless of race, class or religion. This is fundamental to our freedom.

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson represents the 30th Congressional District of Texas, covering most of southern Dallas County.

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