The fatuous claim that nothing significant has changed in the field of American race relations since the 1960s was expressed most perfectly yesterday by Senator Bernie Sanders. The Voting Rights Act, Sanders wrote, “is as necessary today as it was in the era of Jim Crow laws.” We wonder whether anybody genuinely believes this. Perhaps MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry does, for she went further than Sanders. “Damn,” Harris-Perry tweeted, “that citizenship thing was so great for awhile.”
Contrast this hyperbole with the Supreme Court’s actual ruling. By five votes to four, it held that, while certain states may still be required to submit changes in their voting rules for federal approval, Congress must update the data it uses to determine which are subject to its adjudication. The dramatic changes of the last 40 years, the majority concluded, have rendered the existing formula worthless. This should come as no surprise. That formula was last amended in 1972, while George Wallace was still governor of Alabama.
In making the case for reform, Chief Justice Roberts noted that
in the first decade after enactment of [Section 5] the Attorney General objected to 14.2 percent of proposed voting changes. In the last decade before reenactment, the Attorney General objected to a mere 0.16 percent.
The difference is remarkable. In 1965, Mississippi saw a gap of 63.2 percentage points between white and black voter-registration rates; by 2004, black voters were 3.8 percentage points more likely to be registered than their white counterparts. It is a similar story across the South. So successful has the Voting Rights Act been that New York University election specialist Rock Pildes recently observed that, instead of ensuring the franchise, the Justice Department now employs Section 5 primarily as a tool to ensure that minorities are well-represented in legislative bodies. For a law that was cast as a temporary emergency measure, this evolution is problematic.
Notwithstanding the peculiar claim of ABC’s Terry Moran yesterday morning that “now there is no Voting Rights Act operative in the United States,” the rest of the Voting Rights Act remains very much intact and in effect. Americans whose voting rights have been violated are still able to take to the federal courts and sue their local or state governments. The decision brings an end to the automatic and perpetual punishment of states that are guilty of crimes in decades past. It does nothing else.
Many of the Court’s critics appear to believe that the VRA serves as vital scaffolding, the even partial removal of which will prompt the United States to backslide into segregation or worse. This strikes us as nonsense. Like Boy Mulcaster complaining to Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited that he never got the chance to fight in the First World War, many of today’s naysayers exhibit a palpable regret that they missed the moral clarity of the 1960s. It is not the role of Congress to indulge them.
Justice Ginsburg complains that it is not the role of the Court to force a revision to the law. Perhaps not. Amending the law to reflect contemporary realities remains the right thing for Congress to do. Instead of gnashing our teeth and reliving old battles, we Americans should consider it a source of great pride that legal provisions contrived to ensure that the Jim Crow era was brought to a welcome close have finally outlived their necessity.