Last week the Department of Justice denied preclearance to Texas’s law requiring voters to present photo identification under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 requires states and jurisdictions with a demonstrated history of passing discriminatory election laws to get approval from the DOJ for any change to laws governing the time, place or manner in which an election is conducted.
Within days Texas filed a challenge in federal court arguing that Section 5 is unconstitutional. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott maintains that the federal government exceeded its authority and violated the Tenth Amendment when it passed the measure.
Conservative opponents of civil rights are eager to see that challenge succeed. Writing in National Review—which opposed the civil rights movement—vice chairman of the US Commission on Civil Rights and conservative scholar Abigail Thernstrom argues that Section 5 is outdated. National Review’s evolution on the subject is the standard conservative slither on civil rights. First you oppose it. Then, when society has evolved and you look like a bigot, you accept it. Then, as soon as humanly possible, you argue it was necessary at the time but no longer is.
“The Voting Rights Act was absolutely essential in ending the brutal regime of racial subjugation in the South, but it has become a period piece—anti-discrimination legislation passed at a time when southern blacks were kept from the polls by violence, intimidation, and fraudulent literacy tests,” writes Thernstrom. “Those disfranchising devices are as unlikely to return as segregated water fountains.” Thernstrom focuses most of her argument on the question of redistricting, and she argues that increasing residential integration and ethnic and socioeconomic diversity within minority communities makes the creation of majority-minority districts either unnecessary or impossible. “The notion of a ‘black community’ as the foundation of a black legislative district is also becoming an anachronism.”
There are two separate arguments being advanced by civil rights opponents: that Section 5 is unconstitutional because it falls outside the federal government’s enumerated powers, and that it is bad policy. Both are bogus. Section 5 is clearly constitutional, and we very much need it to protect the right to vote.
When Texas votes for seats in the House and Senate or the presidency, the results affect every American. Thus it is in the national interest to insure that elections are conducted fairly. “Not having discrimination in the electoral process is important to all of us,” says Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau.
Congress has the authority to regulate national elections, and it has the power under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution to protect the rights of African-Americans from state governments. “Congress has broad authority to regulate procedures for federal elections under Article I, Section IV of the Constitution,” notes Daniel Tokaji, an election law expert at Ohio State University. “Because Texas ID requirement would apply to federal elections, we don’t even need to get into the question of whether Section 5 falls within Congress’s Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment power.” While Tokaji agrees that imposing federal power over redistricting may raise some constitutional questions, the Texas complaint maintains that the federal government has no business telling states not to disenfranchise their citizens.
Moreover, contra Thernstrom, southern blacks are indeed being kept from the polls today. Case in point: the Texas voter ID law itself. Blacks and Latinos in Texas are disproportionately likely not to have driver’s licenses other forms of state-issued photo identification, as are poor people and the disabled. As the DOJ noted in making its decision, “According to [Texas’s] own data, a Hispanic registered voter is at least 46.5 percent, and potentially 120.0 percent, more likely than a non-Hispanic registered voter to lack this identification.” Texas did not collect data for African-Americans. But national studies have shown they too are less likely than whites to have the requisite ID. The DOJ has also recently denied preclearance to a similar law in South Carolina for the same reason. (South Carolina is also suing the DOJ, but they are not claiming that the law is unconstitutional, only that it is being incorrectly applied.)
This is not an isolated incident. Every time the VRA is renewed, Congress documents that it is still needed by examining allegations of vote suppression. “[Section 5] has stopped laws from going into effect that would restrict minority participation,” says Nancy Abudu, senior staff counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. The most recent renewal was in 2006, when Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress and the White House, so it can hardly be characterized as a Democratic power grab. “[In 2006] Congress did a very good job of collecting the evidence of why Section 5 remains necessary,” says Abudu.
“The only places covered by Section 5 have a history of discrimination,” explains Shelton. “Every state under Section 5 was reviewed carefully for its record and complaints. [Opponents] are right: it is an extraordinary measure to take that is inconsistent with states’ rights. But these are states that have proven bad behavior. The law is protecting the participation of all eligible Americans.”