Protecting the right to vote

Given the heated controversies over potential restrictions on voters' access to the polls during this year's presidential election, now is no time to back off on the legal protections that guarantee one of a democracy's most fundamental rights. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that protects minorities' access to the polls. The law is one of the signature legacies of the civil rights era, and experience has shown it is still needed. The justices must continue to uphold the act's constitutionality and respect the judgment exercised by Congress when it last renewed the law in 2006.

The suit, brought by Shelby County, Ala., seeks to overturn Section 5 of the act, which gives federal authorities the power to block states with a history of discrimination from changing election laws in ways that could disenfranchise minorities. The county contends the provision represents an unconstitutional intrusion on states' authority to manage elections and that it is no longer needed to ensure equal access to the ballot box. In particular, the county is asking the court to lift Section 5's requirement that it obtain permission, or "pre-clearance," from the Justice Department or a federal court before making changes to its election laws.

On its face, Shelby County's argument lacks credibility in light of the crucial role the law played in last week's election, when courts in several states relied on it to block voter ID requirements and cutbacks on early voting that would have had the effect of suppressing the African-American and Hispanic vote. Civil rights groups have warned that just because the country has elected its first black president, and thousands of minority candidates have been elected to state and local offices since the act was passed, that doesn't guarantee that minority voters won't face discrimination at the polls.

This is the second time in three years that the court will consider whether the Voting Rights Act is still needed. Opponents of the law contend that it undermines the sovereignty of states covered by the act by imposing restrictions on their election systems that other states aren't subjected to, stamping them with a badge of shame that is no longer justified.

In 2009, the justices turned back a challenge to Section 5 brought by a utility district in Texas that didn't exist when the original law was passed and that had no history of discrimination, even though it was located in a state covered by the act. The Texas district argued that given its clean record, it shouldn't be required to get Justice Department permission to change its election laws. But rather than ruling on the constitutionality of the act, the justices chose to resolve the case on the narrowest possible grounds, leaving the question of the law's constitutionality as an issue to be decided later.

That ruling made another challenge virtually inevitable, and it came earlier this year when a split panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected Shelby County's suit in a decision upholding a lower court's ruling that "40 years has not been a sufficient amount of time to eliminate the vestiges of discrimination." By agreeing to hear the case, the Supreme Court has signaled it might now be willing to overturn that that judgment.

That would be a mistake. Congress has repeatedly extended the Voting Rights Act, most recently for 25 years, because a majority of lawmakers believed that discrimination against voters based on their race plainly continues to exist in many parts of the country. The long lines of African-American residents in Virginia, Florida, Ohio and other battleground states who waited for hours to cast their ballots before and on Election Day testified to their determination not to be disenfranchised by partisan schemes aimed at discouraging them from voting. For them, there was no question of the Voting Rights Act's continued relevance, nor should there be any for those who sit on the nation's highest court.

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