High court throws out ‘umbrella’

Published 10:35am Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent simply said it best: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision Tuesday to throw out Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act — a law that was borne on the backs of beaten and bloodied civil rights activists — essentially guts the practice of preclearance of voting rights changes, set in place to ensure that all people in our country have the right to vote.

We will give at least this credit to the majority justices: They did not throw out preclearance altogether, just the formula of areas that need it. That formula, set by the 1965 act, has never been changed: States that had tests or devices as prerequisites to voting — a poll tax, for example — had to have preclearance of voting changes by the U.S. Justice Department.

The majority court, in its ruling, urged Congress to make changes to the formula in Section 4.

But no one — probably not even Congress — expects that to happen. They did not do so in 2006, when a Republican majority Congress approved reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. They did not do so in 2009, when the court ruled differently in a similar case but said those changes were needed.

While the burden for a new formula shifts to lawmakers, the real burden shifts to those who might be disenfranchised, who would have to file a lawsuit over changes rather than have the U.S. Justice Department first make its approvals. Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said not having preclearance will save the state money — but at what cost to voting rights?

There must be a disconnect when this ruling comes just a few months after long lines discouraged voters in Florida from voting — long lines that a newspaper study in January determined that kept 200,000 voters from casting a ballot, mainly in heavily Hispanic communities.

There must be a disconnect when Gov. Robert Bentley — who was born 11 years before Brown vs. Board of Education — says that this ruling is perhaps the most significant in his lifetime.

Racism isn’t gone because we decide on paper that it is. Are things better? Of course. But they are better, in part, because of measures like the Voting Rights Act.

We’ve thrown out the umbrella. And now we have to rely on the wet blanket that is Congress to take the high court’s recommendation and make changes to modernize the Voting Rights Act. Recent history tells us how unlikely that is.

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