Congress' next job: To protect voting rights

A long line of voters waits late in the day in Fort Myers, Fla., one of the states listed for federal control in the Voters Rights Act,  on Election Day 2012.
A long line of voters waits late in the day in Fort Myers, Fla., one of the states listed for federal control in the Voters Rights Act, on Election Day 2012.

'Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the 1849 French proverb usually translates.

We can only hope that is not the case, but it is our fear.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote in last week's Shelby County v. Holder decision eviscerating the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the past is history and we need to move on, while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the past cannot be forgotten, as history just might repeat itself.

History wasted no time repeating itself after the 5-4 ruling when Texas implemented strict voter identification laws that hinder access to the voting booth.

Why backslide now? Why do people have to fight for the right to vote?

It is unconscionable.

Just when the Supreme Court made one of its most controversial decisions in its Citizens United ruling, the justices topped themselves by eliminating Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the formula requirement that determines what states are subject to Section 5, which requires states to submit changes to election or voting laws or district lines, known as preclearance, for Justice Department approval. This latest decision might as well be called Citizens Un-United, as the disparity in voting fairness will only create a greater divide as to who gets to the polls and who does not, short of quick Congressional action.

Congress majors in divisiveness and its supreme test comes after the justices did the unimaginable in discarding years of racial voter equality while asking the nearly impossible of a polarized Congress to craft an updated formula.

"The sad irony of today's decision," Ginsburg wrote, "lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective. The Court appears to believe that the VRA's success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclearance is no longer needed … history repeats itself."

The League of Women Voters knows a thing or two about history after more than 93 years of working to open access to all eligible voters, with its national president, Elisabeth MacNamara, characterizing the justices' decision as naïve.

"The fact that the Department of Justice blocked over 700 voting changes they found to be discriminatory from 1982 through the VRA's 2006 reauthorization speaks for itself," MacNamara said.

The League itself faced limitations in registering voters just last year after partisan politicians and special interests waged a campaign against voters, working to overturn voting rights laws and using tactics blocking access to the polls.

MacNamara charged that the justices erased effective fundamental protections against racial discrimination in voting for more than 40 years, and declared: "Only strong action from Congress can fix this huge mistake made by the Court."

Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill called the ruling worse than wrong and said it was "an injustice to the millions of voters in this country that face potential disenfranchisement at the ballot box due to discriminatory election laws that are still passed in many states throughout this country even today."

Connecticut is more fortunate than other states with its progressive stance, enacting Election Day voter registration, enabling voters to register online and allowing voters next year to change the state's constitution to allow early voting.

Bill Yeomans, formerly with the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, called the preclearance requirement "quite simply one of the most effective laws ever passed by Congress." It was "a terrifically efficient way to enforce the law, and to achieve anything close to the same level of enforcement is going to require a great deal more resources."

"We're talking about our fundamental right to vote," Yeomans said.

Civil rights activist and Georgia Congressman John Lewis said of the ruling: "They are saying, in effect, that history cannot repeat itself. But I say, come and walk in my shoes. As Justice Ginsburg described in her dissent, the history is relevant because voting rights have been given in this country and they have been taken away."

TIME Editor-at-Large David Von Drehle noted that William Faulkner wrote "the past is never dead. It's not even past," and aptly pointed to Ginsburg's dissent, citing support of the 2006 reauthorization of the act: "It was the judgment of Congress that '40 years has not been a sufficient amount of time to eliminate the vestiges of discrimination following nearly 100 years of disregard for the dictates of the 15th Amendment and to ensure that the right of all citizens to vote is protected as guaranteed by the Constitution.' "

The head of the Brennan Center for Justice said the Court's decision is at odds with recent history but he remained optimistic.

"There is a path forward," Center President Michael Waldman said. "Section 5 stands. Congress now has the duty to upgrade this key protection and ensure our elections remain free, fair and accessible for all Americans."

As MacNamara of the U.S. League of Women Voters said, "Congress must act and voters must vote at every opportunity."

Congress must heed the call and fashion a bipartisan formula promoting unencumbered access to voting.

Rosanne Smyle is a member of the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut and a former Day writer and editor. She lives in Stonington.


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