Memo to Alabama on the Voting Rights Act: Don’t Do the Crime if You Can’t Do the Time

As many of you probably know, the Supreme Court has struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which stipulates that jurisdictions judged to have a history of discriminatory voting practices must get federal approval before making any change related to voting. There have been allegations that this provision singled out the South. This is nonsense. States such as Maine and New Hampshire have been included in this provision, even though Maine and New Hampshire were actually among only a few states that did not have racially discriminatory voting laws prior to the Civil War. Meanwhile, North Carolina only had certain counties covered. Arkansas had a racially motivated poll tax until the practice was banned by constitutional amendment but was left out of the Voting Rights Act. Perhaps it was felt that Arkansas had shown proof of being free from racism, while Maine and New Hampshire had not. After all, in 1957, Governor Edmund Muskie of Maine tried to use the National Guard to keep the state’s schools segregated. Oh wait, that was Orval Faubus of Arkansas. Bias against the South? Not hardly. In fact, the Voting Rights Act goes out of its way to avoid even the appearance of regional bias, except perhaps against the Northeast. However, Alabama feels that it should no longer be required to submit changes to voting for federal approval. Rather than attempt to go through the process to convince the feds that the state has reformed enough to “opt out” of the preclearance requirement, Alabama appealed to the Supreme Court and got an important portion of a very important law changed. Hence the title of my blog post. Now, this is not to imply that all Alabamans are racist or that they are responsible for the wrongs of their ancestors. However, the fact remains that states like Alabama were disproportionately likely during the Jim Crow era to take measures to prevent blacks from voting. That means that special steps have to be taken to make sure that they do not repeat these actions. That is why the state’s voting practices were still subjected to oversight until the court wrongfully intervened. It reminds me of when Trent Lott of Mississippi claimed that the Voting Rights Act unfairly targeted his state. This was the same man who had tried to keep his college fraternity segregated. So if he wondered why his state was getting special attention from the feds for racial discrimination, he might have wanted to look in the mirror. If non-racist Alabamans object, they should blame the Dixiecrats who used poll taxes, literacy tests, and other malarchy to discriminate against African American voters. Keeping voting free from racial discrimination must outweigh the conveniences of state officials. It is not as though all white Alabamans are being held in jail for the sins of some of their ancestors. That would indeed be very unjust. This portion of the Voting Rights Act, however, was not a punishment but a precaution. And it is not as if racism is not still a problem. Public displays of Confederate Flags are hardly freak occurrences, interracial marriages still encounter stigma, and public figures like Pat Buchanan, Michael Savage, Haley Barbour, Ann Coulter, Ron and Rand Paul, and Rush Limbaugh have expressed racist statements in recent years. Again, the preclearance clause of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a precaution against racial discrimination in voting. And a necessary precaution. Like the attempt to implement voter I.D. laws, this challenge to the preclearance clause was mistaken and, among some individuals, motivated by racism. It would be wrong to believe that Lincoln Chaffee, who had a strong record on race issues as a U.S. Senator, signed Rhode Island’s voter I.D. law out of racism. But are we wrong to be suspicious when, as Governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour praised the state’s voter I.D. law and the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens? Likewise, while some people probably have sincere, non racist reasons for the stance that they are taking on the Voting Rights Act, I cannot help but fear that others are motivated by insidious bigotry. I should note, however, that the situation is not as apocalyptic as some fear. Even though the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Alabama, it will not result in the repeal of the whole act, just the specific preclearance portion.

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