The Lonely Centrist

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Friday, July 28, 2006

President Bush Signs Voting Rights Act Renewal

Yesterday President Bush signed a 25 year renewal of the Voting Rights Act.

One of the most successful laws in history, the VRA, first enacted in 1964, specifically put an end to many of the legal tactics that southern states had used to deny black citizens the vote. Moreover, it required any further changes in voting procedures in covered states to be pre-cleared by the Department of Justice, thus heading off future, creative legal ploys by segregationist state legislatures. Its success as a matter of fact, and its additional importance as a matter of symbol, cannot be denied. The Act, originally a "temporary" measure, was reauthorized three previous times by Congress, most recently in 2002, when it was reauthorized for 25 years.

Of course, much has changed in over 40 years. I think it is doubtful that, were the VRA not renewed, we would see a serious renewal of efforts to disenfranchise blacks or other minorities. But there are others who disagree, and as a general safeguard against abuse, renewal of the Act can probably be justified in any case. On the other hand, 25 years is a long time. Key parts of the Act - including the pre-clearance provisions - only apply to particular states and portions of states (mainly in the deep south), and are based on voter registration and turnout data now nearly half a century old. Whether this "temporary" measure can truly be justified for more than 65 years from its original enactment - which is what the new reenactment does - is somewhat questionable.

More unfortunate to me is that this year's congressional debate, and the extensive period of the renewal, have cut off a badly needed debate about the VRA. The VRA does not only prohibit laws aimed at preventing minorities from voting. It has also been interpreted by the Supreme Court to mandate the creation of "majority-minority" districts, in which minority voters constitute a sufficient voting block to elect the candidate of their choice. This certainly led to the election of more black representatives in Congress and in state legislatures, but at a price. To create these districts, black voters were often "packed" into districts, and given the voting patterns of American blacks (due, in part, to 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater's opposition to the VRA), that means creating districts that are very liberal, Democratic Party strongholds. Meanwhile, surrounding districts are left with few black voters, often creating very conservative, GOP strongholds. Whether this is a good dynamic - or even a good way to maximize minority political power (holding a what are still a relatively small number of seats, while having little influence over the majority of seats) is questionable.

But this debate was largely missing from renewal, in part because the public doesn't understand that the VRA has been used this way, and in part because debating the issue seems to lead to immediate racial demagoguery on both sides. Unfortunatly, by renewing the Act for such a long period, we won't have this debate soon. Rather, it is more likely to be decided in the courts. A public debate and decisions made in the electoral arena - tempered, of course, by the requirements of the Constitution enforced by the Courts - would have been a much better result.

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