Voting booths are illuminated by sunlight as voters cast their ballots at a polling place on Nov. 6, 2012.
Photo by Jae C. Hong/AP

The Voting Rights Act’s precarious future

Updated
More than two years have passed since conservative Supreme Court justices undermined the Voting Rights Act, effectively telling members of Congress to overhaul the law in order to save it. A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a proposed fix, the “Voting Rights Amendment Act,” but far-right House Republicans refused to consider the conservative compromise.
 
Last week, to his credit, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) formally unveiled the same bill to be considered in the new Congress, though proponents seem to realize they face long odds. In theory, the pieces are in place for success – the VRA’s 50th anniversary is coming up, and the Republican majority, which used to support the law, could use some good p.r. on civil rights – but most of the GOP just won’t budge.
 
And with this in mind, consider this unnerving report from Alice Ollstein late last week.
Just weeks ahead of the 50th anniversary of the violent clashes in Selma that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, lawmakers introduced a bill to restore that law’s power to protect voters against discrimination. Alabama’s newly sworn in Secretary of State John Merrill told ThinkProgress at a DC conference on Wednesday that he believes the new law should not cover his state, saying it’s time to “forgive people” for past voter suppression and “move on.”
 
Civil rights groups and some lawmakers are already sharing concerns that Alabama – whose racially motivated redistricting case led to the gutting of the law in the first place – is not covered by the new version of the Voting Rights Act. But Merrill said he agrees with the authors of the bill that his state should not fall under the updated coverage formula.
Alabama’s Secretary of State specifically told ThinkProgress, “I say, at some point in time, you’ve got to forgive people. If they’ve shown they are responsible and doing things the right way and have an extended period of success, then to me that ought to indicate that the strength is there, the desire is there, and you’ve got to move on.”
 
The problem with the sentiment, no matter how sincere, is all of the recent evidence pointing in the opposite direction.
 
Merrill’s argument, in effect, is the one the Supreme Court majority embraced in 2013: racially discriminatory voter-suppression laws are a thing of the past. And that might even seem compelling if we hadn’t seen what Republican state policymakers did in the immediate aftermath of the high court’s ruling: states quickly enacted new voting restrictions, many of which disproportionately affected minority communities.
 
That includes Alabama, by the way, which “pushed through … a voter ID law estimated to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters” soon after the Supreme Court gutted the VRA.
 
We have to “forgive people” and “move on”? The flip side to this argument is the advocates of voting rights and civil rights might be more than happy to “forgive people” and “move on” just as soon as the right stops imposing new voting restrictions without cause.
 

Alabama, Voting Rights, Voting Rights Act and War On Voting

The Voting Rights Act's precarious future

Updated