Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Editorial: Court will find record of voter suppression

After substantial review, Congress renewed the Voting Rights Act in 2006 because the powerful still try to prevent the weak from voting.

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The U.S. Supreme Court today will hear an Alabama case that seeks to neuter the Justice Department's power to prevent voter suppression in places historically prone to discriminate against minorities.

Two questions are at stake: Did Congress overstep its constitutional bounds in reauthorizing in 2006 the 1965 Voting Rights Act? Is the provision under Section5 still necessary that requires all or part of 16 states, including Virginia, to seek "preclearance" from the Justice Department before enacting any changes, such as redistricting, precinct locations, types of voting machines, new voter ID provisions?

The answer to both is intrinsic to one fundamental truth that has not changed in 48 years, though all would wish differently. Both coordinated and isolated efforts still exist to make it more difficult for minority, poor and elderly Americans to cast their votes.

A Republican Congress and a Republican president in 2006 were convinced discrimination and suppression efforts remained after nearly a year devoted to reviewing 15,000 pages of documents and listening to more than 90witnesses. But we need look no further than last year's presidential election to catalogue suppression efforts and no farther than our own state capital to find new cause for concern.

The Republican Party rammed bills through many state legislatures requiring voter photo IDs, a policy likely to fall hardest on demographic groups who tend to vote Democratic. Republicans attempted to justify the attack on democracy as a means to prevent nonexistent voter fraud.

In states free of Justice Department review, disenfranchised voters must plead their case in court after the fact. Last year, the Virginia GOP, knowing it faced scrutiny prior to the election, backed off of the photo ID, requiring instead any of a number of identification cards, including one the state spent $2 million to issue. This year, Republican lawmakers resurrected the photoID bill, and if the governor agrees, Virginia will spend nearly $1 million more to provide photos, a cost surely shouldered to appease DOJ lawyers.

If those in charge of enacting voting laws sought to make it easier rather than harder to vote, then there would be little need for preclearance. In fact, places that show good faith — like 29 cities and counties in Virginia, including Bedford, Salem, Roanoke County, Bedford County and Botetourt County — are rewarded with an exemption from the preclearance provision.

State lawmakers, though, have rebuffed efforts again this year to make it easier to vote, even going so far as to deny the elderly the ability to vote early without an excuse.

As long as those in power still use it to suppress the ability of the less powerful to challenge them, there will be a need for the effective check the Voting Rights Act affords.

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