The Supreme Court's ruling on the Voting Rights Act was almost clever, in an ugly and deceptive sort of way. The five-member conservative majority conceded what a great law the VRA has been, and hailed its efficacy over the years. (In a curious twist, the justices believe the law such a great success it magically became unconstitutional when we weren't looking.)
Today's ruling even left Section 5 of the law more or less intact, endorsing at least the concept of pre-clearance before states and municipalities can change their voting laws. So what's the problem?
Actually, everything. While the high court's ruling may seem fairly narrow -- the majority said they simply want Congress to replace an old formula with a new one -- it also probably marks the end of the Voting Rights Act. Today's ruling calls for a fix, but as a practical matter, it guts the landmark civil-rights law.
The ruling, a 5-4 decision by Chief Justice John Roberts, leaves the future of the law deeply uncertain because it will be up to a sharply divided Congress to redraw the map, if it can agree on one at all."In practice, in reality, it's probably the death knell of this provision," said Tom Goldstein, the publisher of SCOTUSblog and a Supreme Court analyst for NBC News.
If we wore some kind of Rawlsian veil of ignorance, and forgot everything we know about the contemporary U.S. Congress, this wouldn't necessarily have to be considered a complete disaster. Given widespread voting problems, a competent and capable legislative branch of government might even see the ruling as an opportunity to pursue meaningful election reforms.
But if we drop the veil, we see Congress as it actually is -- an institution where procedural abuses are the norm, an extremist caucus holds control of the lower chamber, the politics of extortion and hostage strategies is routine, and lawmakers struggle badly to complete even rudimentary tasks.
And it's not just about Congress' dysfunction. As the image above shows, as recently as 2006, the Voting Rights Act was easily reauthorized by large bipartisan majorities, and signed into law by a Republican president. But by any fair measure, the radicalization of Republican politics has intensified greatly over the last seven years.
Indeed, I imagine GOP lawmakers will see a strong incentive not to act at all on this issue -- with the 2014 midterms coming up, and Republicans in the majority in so many state legislatures (especially in the South), the party will likely be content to reject all pre-clearance measures and encourage red-state lawmakers to enact sweeping new voting restrictions without fear of Justice Department oversight. In the process, Democratic hopes for electoral gains next November will be further undermined by institutional, not political, barriers.
The war on voting, in other words, is just getting started, and is poised to claim more casualties.
There is one more angle to keep in mind, though. You'll recall that the Republican National Committee has said it's sincere about outreach to minority communities and expanding its base beyond the GOP's overwhelmingly white, older supporters.
If Republican lawmakers refuse to work constructively on the Voting Rights Act, and perhaps even kill immigration reform, the setback for the party's alleged outreach efforts will be immeasurable.