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Editorial: Voting rights

For close to 50 years, the Voting Rights Act has been one of the nation’s linchpins in protecting the civil rights of black Americans and other minorities by recognizing that past acts of discrimination do not necessarily change with time.

In fact, four separate times over the years, Congress has demonstrated that it understood the importance of the act — though the cast of representatives and senators wasn’t the same — and overwhelmingly reauthorized it. That included Section 5 — whereby nine states and voting districts in seven other states are required to get Justice Department approval before changing their voting laws. To get that approval, those applying for the change have to prove that what was being asked would not infringe upon the ability of black Americans or minorities to exercise their protected voting right.

The need for the act grew out of the Jim Crow Laws, local statutes that combined to prevent black and other minority voters from registering and voting.

And just as there is evidence to show that the Voting Rights Act has been successful in protecting voting rights in the time since the legislation was signed into law back in 1965, there also continues to be evidence that the act remains relevant even as our society has moved forward from the days of segregation and other aspects or racial discrimination.

The American public learned this week that there are five conservative men sitting as U.S. Supreme Court justices who, while admitting that racism and attempts to discriminate when it comes to voting still exist, think that the Voting Rights Act hasn’t kept up with the times, specifically Section 4 of the law, the formula used to identify the “covered jurisdictions.” In finding Section 4 unconstitutional, the justice essentially makes Section 5 moot.

“Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices,” Chief Justice John Roberts declared. “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”

We would argue, however, that the act does speak to “current conditions,” in that there are still many attempts at rigging the voting system to deny people their rights. That’s what the recent argument over “voter identification” has been about.

In addition, some 190 jurisdictions in the U.S. have successfully gotten themselves out from under Section 5.

What the court majority here has done is switch the burden of proof from areas with a history of discriminating against minorities at the polling place to Congress, which came up with the solution that has been protecting voters since 1965.

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said in her dissent, “Recognizing that large progress has been made, Congress determined, based on a voluminous record, that the scourge of discrimination was not yet extir­pated.”

It’s too bad the justices haven’t been paying as close attention as to the continued need for such an act. And since it is unlikely that today’s Congress will create a new formula, civil rights in this country just took a step backward.

We’ll have to watch closely to see what the ultimate effect will be.

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