The Supreme Court’s conservative majority seemed hell-bent Wednesday on striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, several news sources reported.Section 5 of the VRA requires 16 states with histories of discrimination (mostly in the South) to get permission from the federal government before changing their voting procedures.
The federal government in turn looks at whether those changes could negatively impact minority voters and stops them in their tracks if they do.
In recent years, the U.S. government has used Section 5 to stop states from passing laws that serve no real purpose other than keeping likely Democrats out of voting booths.
The VRA was passed in 1965, when Southern states used more blatant tactics to keep blacks away from the polls such as literacy tests and “poll taxes.”
The law’s opponents say it’s no longer necessary in a post-Jim Crow era when a black politician can be elected president of the United States.
It’s true that no Southern state has tried a tactic as outrageous as a literacy test to disenfrancise voters and rig an election in a very long time.
But if (and more likely when) the Supreme Court strikes down Section 5, states will be able to find ways to skew election results in ways that could screw Democratic candidates, who tend to capture the minority vote.
These are a few of the ways the high court is going to pave the way for states to rig elections:
- Gerrymandering – This practice allows states go redraw election districts so that one party has a distinct advantage. For instance, a minority neighbourhood might be divided into several districts to dillute that group’s power. States covered under Section 5 would have to get permission before gerrymandering their districts, and the federal government would thwart their efforts. Slate’s Emily Bazelon has called the VRA the “only real bulwark against gerrymandering still standing.”
- Voter ID laws – A number of states with Republican-controlled legislatures have pushed for laws that require government-issued photo IDs at the polls. The people pushing for voter ID laws say they’re fighting election fraud, but one comprehensive study found there are virtually no known cases of in-person, election day voter fraud. Meanwhile, a photo ID requirement adds one more barrier to voting and could potentially disenfranchise a lot of Hispanic voters, one bombshell study found.
- Ditching early voting – Early voting typically helps ensure poor voters can actually get to the polls, as low-income people might have a tough time getting out of work on election day and waiting in long lines. And many black churches bus voters to their precincts on the Sunday before election day, in an effort known as “Souls to the Polls.” If and when Section 5 dies, the federal government won’t be able to block Southern states’ efforts to cut back on early voting.
To be sure, the federal government will be able to sue states that adopt racist voting procedures – even if Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act dies.
For instance, Obama sued Ohio when it tried to cut back on eary voting, and Ohio isn’t covered by Section 5. But Ohio was a battleground state in a presidential election and worth the legal battle.
Still, the Justice Department can’t sue over every potentially discriminatory voting law. If Section 5 dies, then someone somewhere is going to get away with rigging elections.
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