Earlier this week, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that mandated that certain states and districts with a historical reputation for racial discrimination get “preclearance” from the federal government before enacting any voting laws or regulations. In the majority opinion of the court, the formula for deciding which areas are branded with such a restriction is outdated to the point of unconstitutionality and therefore will be null unless and until Congress passes a new formula for the America of today.
However, based on the reaction from the ruling’s opponents, one would think that it was the end of American democracy. The Rev. Al Sharpton lamented that the Court had “canceled the dream” of Martin Luther King, Jr. Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) said that the Court “stabbed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its very heart.” Barbara Arnwine, President of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, angrily declared that “the South is rising again” and that we are “seeing the rise of the Neo-Confederacy.”
Considering that Congress is almost guaranteed to not pass a new preclearance formula at all like the old one (namely, one that puts the focus almost entirely upon former Confederate states, which are now represented by largely Republican delegations that will not be keen to single out their own districts for oversight), if it passes one at all, formerly hamstrung states will now have significantly more flexibility in instituting voting laws – specifically, they will have exactly the same flexibility as all the other states in the union.
Part of the outrage by the likes of Sharpton and Lewis is ultimately due to a sense that in 2013 – 152 years since the start of the Civil War and 48 years since the passage of the VRA – the old crimes of the South still need punishing. True, there is still “racism” in the South (and by “racism” I mean there exist people who are racist and their prejudice can harm others), but there is “racism” in every state.
Voting law/regulation preclearance would not be so divisive if it was required for every state, but instead the VRA mandated that certain states (as defined by the conditions of 1965) would be forced to have Uncle Sam constantly peek over their shoulders, always at the ready to crack their Dixie wrists should they want to pass any questionable voting laws.
The federal government should naturally not have favorite states, but in the same vein it should also not brand certain states as adversaries. Prior to the VRA ruling, if (for example) Rhode Island and Texas both wanted to pass an identical law requiring the presentation of a government-issued photo ID to vote, Rhode Island would have only been liable to court-based lawsuits while Texas would have had to first offer up the law for federal review (likely followed by a swift injunction).
This type of dual standard might have been necessary in 1965, when many Southern states were just then having objectively racist laws being struck down and voter discrimination was widespread in the region. But today, we see tough voter ID laws in non-Southern states like Indiana, Michigan, and New Hampshire – proof that a desire to tighten election standards is not confined to the former Confederacy and consequently proof that the 1965 preclearance formula is obsolete (if Indiana can enact voter ID laws without federal preclearance, then there is no reason Southern states cannot as well).
But the true significance of this ruling lies not in what new voting laws may be allowed by it, but rather by what it means for us as a country. It marks the end of an age – an age that began when South Carolina first seceded from the US. The institutionalized wrongs of the South following that fatal decision were many indeed and any cultural region naturally has room to improve, but by striking down the preclearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court affirmed that we as a nation need to move on. Indeed, the ruling rings with one of the most poignant lessons of the Civil War: there cannot be two Americas.