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Berman: GOP Set on Destroying the Voting Rights Act

How's this for a nostalgia-provoking lede:

In 2006, Congress voted overwhelmingly to reauthorize key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for another twenty-five years. The legislation passed 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate. Every top Republican supported the bill. "The Voting Rights Act must continue to exist," said House Judiciary chair James Sensenbrenner, a conservative Republican, "and exist in its current form." Civil rights leaders flanked George W. Bush at the signing ceremony.

It comes from Ari Berman's article, "Why Are Conservatives Trying to Destroy the Voting Rights Act?" in The Nation. We normally don't think of recalling something that happened just seven years ago as nostalgia. But in this case the difference between the Republican party of '06 and today is so stark that it now seems like another era. As Berman puts it, "Seven years later, the bipartisan consensus that supported the VRA for nearly fifty years has collapsed, and conservatives are challenging the law as never before."

On February 27th the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which compels16 states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to clear election law 'reforms' with the federal government. Berman lays out the challenge facing Democrats:

The current campaign against the VRA is the result of three key factors: a whiter, more Southern, more conservative GOP that has responded to demographic change by trying to suppress an increasingly diverse electorate; a twenty-five-year effort to gut the VRA by conservative intellectuals, who in recent years have received millions of dollars from top right-wing funders, including Charles Koch; and a reactionary Supreme Court that does not support remedies to racial discrimination.

The push by conservatives to repeal Section 5 comes on the heels of what NAACP president Benjamin Jealous has called "the greatest attacks on voting rights since segregation." After the 2010 election, GOP officials approved laws in more than a dozen states to restrict the right to vote by requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote, shutting down voter registration drives, curtailing early voting, disenfranchising ex-felons and mandating government-issued photo IDs to cast a ballot--all of which disproportionately target communities of color. The states covered by Section 5 were significantly more likely to pass such laws than those that are not.

Berman goes on to recount the troubling history of Chief Justice John Roberts fierce opposition to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. And despite conservative arguments to the contrary, Berman explains:

...Past remains present to a disturbing degree in the South. States and ounties with a history of voting discrimination in the 1960s and '70s are still trying to suppress their growing minority vote today. Six of the nine fully covered states have passed new voting restrictions since 2010, including voter ID laws (Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia), limits on early voting (Georgia) and restrictions on voter registration (Alabama and Texas). But only one-third of noncovered jurisdictions passed similar restrictions during the same period. The worst of the worst actors are still those covered by Section 5...It's certainly true that voter suppression efforts have spread to states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. If anything, though, that's an argument for expanding the statute, not eliminating it.

...In addition to passing a raft of new voting restrictions, Republicans across the South used their control of state legislatures following the 2010 election to pass redistricting maps that have led to a resegregation of Southern politics, placing as many Democratic lawmakers into as few majority-minority districts as possible as a way to maximize the number of white Republican seats [see Berman, "The GOP's New Southern Strategy," February 20, 2012]. Republican leaders say they're only following the guidelines of Section 5, but in reality they've turned the VRA on its head. (Most recently, on Martin Luther King Day, the GOP-controlled Virginia Senate redrew its maps to reduce Democratic seats by diluting black voting strength in at least eight districts.)

Expanding voting rights in these areas has been shaky at best. "Black voters and elected officials have less influence [in the South] now than at any time since the civil rights era," says a 2011 report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which points out that only 4.8 percent of Southern black state legislators serve in the majority, compared with 54.4 percent in the rest of the country. Before the 1994 election, 201 of 202 black state legislators belonged to the majority party. Following the 2010 election, only fifteen of 313 did. There are more black elected officials in the South today, but they have far less power. And without Section 5, there would also be far fewer.

In Alabama, for example, Republicans targeted nearly every white Democrat in the state legislature for extinction but preserved the twenty-seven majority-minority districts in the House (even adding one more) as well as eight in the Senate in order to clear the maps with the feds. (At the time, the head of the Senate Rules Committee, Republican Scott Beason, referred to blacks as "aborigines.") "If there's no Section 5, all those majority-black districts are now vulnerable," says Jim Blacksher, a longtime voting rights lawyer in Birmingham. "And there is no question in anybody's mind what will happen next." He calls Section 5 "the most important sea anchor against the ongoing, uninterrupted, virulent white-supremacy culture that still dominates this state."

In reality, enforcement of the Act, has been more than prudent. As Berman notes, "Section 5 is invoked only in the most extreme circumstances and remains an imperfect and underused remedy. From 2010 to 2011, the Justice Department has objected to only twenty-nine of 19,964 submitted voting changes."

Given the dramatic increase in voter suppression in recent years, Roberts and the other conservatives on the high court will have quite a stretch in building a persuasive case for voiding the VRA. That doesn't mean they won't issue such a ruling, however. Indeed, it will be surprising if they don't. Either way, it is certain that pro-Democratic constituencies will face continuing obstruction of their voting rights until Republicans are soundly defeated in federal and state elections nationwide.