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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Obama Pledges To Fight For Restoration Of Voting Rights Act

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama

WASHINGTON – President Obama has pledged that his administration will do  “everything in its power” to repair the damage done by the United States Supreme  Court on Tuesday when it struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights  Act.

“I am deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision today,” he said  in a statement. “For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act – enacted and  repeatedly renewed by wide bipartisan majorities in Congress – has helped secure  the right to vote for millions of Americans.  Today’s decision invalidating  one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that  help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination  has been historically prevalent.”

The president continued, “As a nation, we’ve made a great deal of progress  towards guaranteeing every American the right to vote.  But, as the Supreme  Court recognized, voting discrimination still exists.  And while today’s  decision is a setback, it doesn’t represent the end of our efforts to end voting  discrimination.  I am calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure  every American has equal access to the polls.  My Administration will  continue to do everything in its power to ensure a fair and equal voting  process.”

A sharply divided Supreme Court upheld the legality of the 1965 Voting Rights  Act, but said it can’t be enforced until Congress updates the way it determines  which jurisdictions are covered under Section 5, the provision that requires  preclearance by the Justice Department or a federal court before changes to  local voting laws can be implemented.

The 5-4 decision by the conservative majority effectively guts the strongest  section of the Voting Rights Act until Congress passes new legislation to meet  the objections raised in the latest ruling, which grew out of a challenge filed  by Shelby County, Ala.

“In 1965, the states could be divided into two groups: those with a recent  history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those  without those characteristics,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the  majority. “Congress based its coverage formula on that distinction. Today the  nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act  continues to treat it as if it were.”

Joining Roberts in the majority were conservatives Antonin Scalia, Anthony M.  Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. Dissenting were the court’s  four liberals: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer along with Obama  appointees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Clarence Thomas, just as he had in the University of Texas affirmative action  decision handed down a day earlier, expressed the most extreme position on the  court, saying he was willing to nullify the entire Voting Rights Act.

“I join the Court’s opinion in full but write separately to explain that I  would find Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional as well. The  Court’s opinion sets forth the reasons,” Thomas wrote.

Rep. John Lewis [D.-Ga.], who was savagely beaten on “Bloody Sunday” during  the Selma to Montgomery March in Alabama in 1965, was livid after the  ruling.

“Today, the Supreme Court stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights  Act of 1965, one of the most effective pieces of legislation Congress has passed  in the last 50 years,” he said. “These men never stood in unmovable lines. They  were never denied the right to participate in the democratic process.  They  were never beaten, jailed, run off their farms or fired from their jobs. No one  they knew died simply trying to register to vote.  They are not the victims  of gerrymandering or contemporary unjust schemes to maneuver them out of their  constitutional rights.”

Lewis, one of the leaders of the Alabama march that led to passage of the  landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, questioned whether Congress has the will to  pass legislation needed to repair the damage done by the Supreme Court.

The Voting Rights Act expired after five years, but was extended by Congress  in 1970, 1975, 1982 and for another 25 years in 2006 with bipartisan support.  The last time, it passed the House 390-3 and the Senate 98-0.  President  George W. Bush signed the last measure in a Rose Garden ceremony witnessed by  members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The case heard by the court began with a challenge from Shelby County, near  Birmingham, Ala. Shelby County sued Attorney General Eric Holder after the  Justice Department rejected a redistricting plan that evidently played a role in  the defeat of Ernest Montgomery, the lone Black member of the Calera, Ala. city  council.

Montgomery was first elected to the city council from a district that was 71  percent Black. Two years later, the district was redrawn to reduce its Black  population to 23 percent. When Montgomery ran for reelection from the redrawn  district in 2008, he was defeated by a White challenger.

The Justice Department invalidated the election because it had not been  precleared and Shelby County sued in federal court, seeking a permanent  restraining order. Two lower courts sided with the Justice Department before the  Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Although Shelby County didn’t apply for it, Section 5 has a “bail out”  provision that allows jurisdictions to avoid pre-clearance requirements if they  can prove that they have not been discriminating for 10 years. When the case was  heard, 46 jurisdictions had successfully opted out of pre-clearance with two  cases pending.

Section 5 applied to jurisdictions that had a history of racial  discrimination. States or political subdivision were placed under that provision  of the Voting Rights Act if they restricted voting, had less than half of their  eligible residents were registered to vote or less than half had actually voted  in the 1964, 1968 or 1972  presidential election.

In his majority opinion, Roberts stated, “Shortly before enactment of the  Voting Rights Act, only 19.4 percent of African-Americans of voting age were  registered to vote in Alana, only 31.8 percent in Louisiana, and only 6.4  percent in Mississippi. Those figures were roughly 50 percentage points or more  below the figures for whites.”

He said that has changed dramatically.

“There is no denying, however, that the conditions that originally justified  these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions. By  2009, ‘the racial gap in voter registration and turnout [was] lower in the  States originally covered by Section 5 than it was nationwide…African-American  turnout has come to exceed white voter turnout in five of the six States  originally covered by Section 5, with a gap in the sixth State of less than one  half of one percent.”

In her dissent, Ginsburg said, “In the Court’s view, the very success of  Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act demands its dormancy.”

She said, “True, conditions in the South have impressively improved since the  passage of the Voting Rights Act. Congress noted this improvement and found that  the VRA was the driving force behind it.”

She said more than 15,000 pages of congressional testimony presented  countless “examples of flagrant discrimination” and “intentional racial  discrimination in voting remains so serious and widespread in covered  jurisdictions that section 5 preclearance is still needed.”

Among the examples she cited:

  • In 1995, Mississippi sought to reenact a dual voter registration  system;
  • In 2003, after African-Americans won a majority of the seats on the school  board for the first time, Charleston County, S.C. proposed switching to an  at-large voting system;
  • In 1993, the city of Millen, Ga. proposed delaying the election of a  majority-Black city council district by two years;
  • In 2004, Walker County, Texas threatened to prosecute two Black students  after they announced their intention to run for office; and
  • In 1990, Dallas County, whose county seat is Selma, sought to purge its  voter rolls of many Blacks.

Both Roberts and Ginsburg credit the Civil Rights Movement for passage of the  Voting Rights Act.

“Alabama is home to Selma, site of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ beatings of civil  rights-demonstrators that served as the catalyst for the VRA’s enactment,”  Ginsburg wrote. “Following those events, Martin Luther King, Jr., led a march  from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, where he called for passage of the  VRA. If the Act passed, he foresaw, progress could be made even in Alabama, but  there had to be a steadfast national commitment to see the task through to  completion.”

In his majority opinion, Roberts made it clear that the Voting Rights Act has  served its purpose.

“Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices,” he  wrote. “The formula captures States by reference to literacy tests and low voter  registration and turnout in the 1960s and early 1970s. But such tests have been  banned nationwide for over 40 years.”

At another point in his opinion, Roberts said, “But history did not end in  1965.”

In her dissent, Ginsburg quoted everyone from Shakespeare to philosopher  George Santayana.

“The Court criticizes Congress for failing to recognize that ‘history did not  end in 1965.’ But the Court ignores that ‘what’s past is prologue,” she said,  quoting The Tempest. And ‘those who cannot remember the past are  condemned to repeat it.’”

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