The Supreme Court was right, but ...

Richard Schmidt Living and Learning
Posted 7/23/13

Last month the Supreme Court voided part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Following the ruling, the pundit world exploded with wailing on the left and cheering on the right. Depending on which columnist you were reading, the court had either …

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The Supreme Court was right, but ...


Last month the Supreme Court voided part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Following the ruling, the pundit world exploded with wailing on the left and cheering on the right. Depending on which columnist you were reading, the court had either destroyed or saved federalism and constitutional government.

Everyone agreed, though, that the Voting Rights Act had been a good thing in its day.

The 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution had been ratified in 1870, ostensibly guaranteeing that no American citizen would be denied the vote on account of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Clear though that should have been, the amendment was ignored throughout the South until 1965. Poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests and intimidation kept everyone with dark skin away from the polls.

The Voting Rights Act ended all that, stabbing Jim Crow in the heart and effectively making the 15th amendment the law in the South. It required that every county in Alabama (and a number of other mostly Southern jurisdictions) acquire advance Justice Department approval of every change in election procedures, from moving a polling place to changing the hours the polls were open.

Shelby County, Alabama (suburban Birmingham), sued last year to void the section of the Voting Rights Act requiring pre-clearance of such things. They claimed that much progress had been made in the South since the 1960s and that Justice Department approval of changes in election procedures was no longer necessary here.

The Supreme Court agreed — and I applaud their decision. Consider:

* The mayors of Alabama’s two largest cities are both African Americans.

* Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other state — not more per capita, but the highest actual number of elected black officials.

* The Justice Department recently reported that the state with the highest percentage of blacks registered to vote is Mississippi. The state with the lowest is Massachusetts.

* Of the 42 African Americans now serving in the U.S. Congress, 17 are from former Confederate states.

One can say, of course, that this would not have happened without the Voting Rights Act. That is surely true. But the act has served its purpose and government in the South today is as racially integrated as anywhere else. Moreover, I saw more racial segregation and tension when I lived in Philadelphia, Boston, St. Louis and Cincinnati, than I see in Alabama today.

But let’s not be smug. We have not reached the promised land of racial harmony. Prejudice still lurks beneath the surface, in the nation as a whole and in the South in particular. It’s more subtle than before, but it can be just as vile, and regressive forces continue to seek ways to limit minority participation in government.

Two stand out. The first is voter ID laws. Thirty-five state legislatures have passed or are now considering laws requiring voters to produce a government-issued photo identification card at the polls (Alabama’s photo ID law will go into effect next year). This might be justified if voter fraud were widespread, but it is not. These bills purport to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Eleven percent of Americans — 23 million citizens of voting age — lack a photo identification card. They are primarily poor, disabled, minority, young and elderly people. What kind of politician wants bar those people from casting a ballot?

The second way regressive forces seek to limit minority participation in government is through gerrymandered districts.

Here’s how it works. Imagine that you have 55 yellow marbles and 45 green marbles and are creating 10 “districts” with 10 marbles in each. If you arrange them carefully, you can have eight districts with a majority of yellow marbles and two with a majority of green marbles. Then if each district elected one marble to represent them, the resulting legislature would be firmly controlled by the yellow marbles. Too bad for the greens. Their two representatives might as well not show up.

You could also come up with seven districts with majority green marbles and three with majority yellow marbles, despite the yellow majority in the group as a whole. In that case, too bad for the majority. It’s happened both ways.

What can be done? Wisconsin has a good idea. More about that next week.

Richard H. Schmidt is a retired Episcopal priest, editor and author who lives in Fairhope. He can be reached at