Karl Douglass: Votes, rights and law

July 14, 2013 

Three weeks ago, the Supreme Court issued its opinion on the Voting Rights Act. In a nutshell, the court said that the South is no more racist than any other part of the country; so Congress needs to come up with a new set of standards for determining which states are required to get approval from the federal government before enacting voter ID laws, creating new legislative districts or moving voting precincts.

On the one hand, I agree with the court's position. It is difficult to single the South out for present-day voting discrimination when you examine the strict voter ID laws in Indiana, Kansas, Arkansas and Pennsylvania or consider the prohibitions on early voting in New York, Michigan and Minnesota. In that light, it is possible to understand the opinion.

On the other hand, it is tough not to believe that but for federal intervention, voting access in the South would be severely restricted for poor, elderly and minority citizens. Texas provided a practical example of this point when the state's Attorney General, upon receiving the Supreme Court's opinion, said that the state's new legislative district maps would be deemed effective immediately even though three federal justices ruled in 2012 that the federal government had provided more than enough evidence of discriminatory intent by the map's creators.

I believe that the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act should apply to every state. There is no real possibility that will ever be the case.

Congress does, however, have the opportunity to develop a new set of standards for the Voting Rights Act that can appropriately identify jurisdictions that are current and habitual offenders, then trigger the federal pre-clearance provisions. It appears that this Congressional conversation could start in earnest on Wednesday when Congressman John Lewis of Georgia and Congressman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin will testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

As it stands today, the idea that a bipartisan position on the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act can be reached seems as fanciful as a winged unicorn. No member of Congress believes that his or her state deserves a racist label in 2013, so there would appear to be no viable political path to adopting a new set of standards.

Nonetheless, members on both sides of the aisle seem to have at least some interest in making it happen. I pray that their words are sincere and the efforts will be earnest. In the meantime, every citizen needs to dust off the old civics textbook and make sure to get educated on what it takes to vote in a post Voting Rights Act America.

Karl Douglass, Columbus native and resident, is a frequent commenter on local, state and federal politics. Follow him on Twitter@KarlDouglass or facebook.com/karldouglass.

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