By NEMS Daily Journal
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ended an era of unprecedented voter advocacy in federal law with the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – benchmark statutes compelling historically discriminatory states, including Mississippi, to fully empower black Americans with the ballot.
The Voting Rights Act was singularly spectacularly effective in removing de facto “white only” signs from polling booths across the South and in a few other places deemed to have proven discrimination. The act is correctly credited with the election, for the first time in American history, of a large number of African-Americans and other minorities to public office, shifts in political balances of power, and the realignment of parties in the South.
Chief Justice John Roberts said the act is dated and captive to now-inaccurate information about voting and is basically unfair. The state-specific Section 4, the 5-4 majority ruled, is unconstitutional. Mississippi is among the nine full states affected, along with portions of six others, all of which had histories of voter discrimination at the time of the act’s passage.
The decision did not strike down Section 5, which sets out the preclearance requirement to get all election changes pre-approved by the U.S. Department of Justice, but without Section 4 it is disempowered unless Congress chooses to pass new laws based on new information determining which states would be covered.
It is not guaranteed that the court’s conservative justices would uphold Section 5 if the question returned to the court.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, shaped and pushed by President Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, was one of the cardinal achievements of the civil rights movement. At the time it was first enacted only 6.4 percent of blacks in Mississippi voted.
The court clearly could reinvigorate Section 5 if new patterns of racial discrimination in voting and election law develop and other anti-discriminatory provisions of the law remain in place. Legal relief through the courts will still be available if discrimination occurs.
While Mississippi will now be treated like every other state, the Supreme Court’s ruling does not erase the long record of discrimination and the certain deep scrutiny it will continue to inspire.
Mississippi and other states under the VRA have been removed from legal requirements but not from the certain observation of those who believe Mississippi will fail the tests of justice without the threat of special sanctions.
Mississippi must prove its detractors wrong for the long term by keeping in place the advances the Voting Rights Act produced.