It suddenly hit me this week: I don’t live in the real world. I live in Washington, D.C.
In the real world, nobody would argue about renewing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). It’s a no-brainer. Violence against women, all women, is wrong. Only in Washington could people disagree with that.
In the real world, nobody would suggest taking a meat-ax to all federal programs, across the board: from preschool to battleships, from teachers to cops, from food inspectors to border patrol agents. Whacking the good as well as the bad? It’s insane. Only in Washington would people go along with that.
In the real world, nobody could imagine gathering to unveil a statue of civil-rights icon Rosa Parks while, across the street, at the very same hour, another group was gathering to discuss possibly dismantling the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson with Rosa Parks in attendance. Surely, we’ve come too far to go back to the days of Jim Crow. Only in Washington would anybody consider rolling back the clock on the most sacred civil right of all, our right to vote. But that’s exactly what several members of the Supreme Court did this week.
On Wednesday, Feb. 27, the court heard oral arguments in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, in which elected officials of Shelby County, Ala., contest the requirement under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act – first enacted by Congress in 1965, and renewed in 2006 – that certain states with a history of racial discrimination must receive pre-clearance from the Justice Department before making any changes to their voting laws.
Of course, there was good reason for that key provision of the Act: Because nine states, mostly in the South, but including Alaska and Arizona, plus parts of seven other states, had such a lousy record of preventing African-Americans from voting – by imposing a poll tax or demanding a literacy test, or both – that they couldn’t be trusted to reform on their own. Such outright discrimination was considered so un-American that the original Voting Rights Act was overwhelmingly approved by Congress: 333 to 85 in the House; 77 to 19 in the Senate. And the Act was renewed with little or no objection in 1982, under President Ronald Reagan, and 2006, under President George W. Bush.
But Shelby County officials insist those days of discrimination are long gone. The South has changed, they told the high court. We can trust them never to do anything that would disenfranchise voters. Oh, really? Nonsense! Just last year, we saw ample evidence of why the Voting Rights Act is needed today more than ever. According to Mother Jones, more than 180 restrictive bills were introduced in 41 states making it harder for people to register to vote, cast their vote on Election Day, or vote by mail. Several of those voter-suppression measures passed, but were later blocked by the courts.
Florida’s attempt to cut short early voting, for example, was rejected by a federal court. In Texas, Rick Perry’s plan to require all voters to produce a government-issued ID card was ruled invalid under the law. A different federal court also found that the Texas Legislature had intentionally discriminated against minority voters in drawing up electoral district maps. All three measures, and more, were blocked under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
And it wasn’t so long ago that Shelby County itself fell afoul of the Voting Rights Act. In 2008, under President George W. Bush, the Justice Department invoked Section 5 when the town of Calera changed its voting lines in order to unseat Ernest Montgomery, the only African-American on the city council – when blacks made up 23 percent of the town’s population. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor tartly advised Shelby County officials in Wednesday’s hearing: “… You may be the wrong party bringing this.”
As unbelievable as it is, all indications are that the Roberts Court appears set to gut the Voting Rights Act. John Roberts himself has been an outspoken critic of the law since his days in the Reagan White House. And Justice Antonin Scalia dismissed the need to preserve our right to vote as the “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
Efforts to suppress the vote, of course, impact all Americans, not just African-Americans. For 48 years, our only protection has been the Voting Rights Act. And now a few extremists want to get rid of it. Only in Washington.