Attorney General Eric Holder has declared that, at least when it comes to voting rights, the Supreme Court is guilty of wishful thinking. He is also showing both how difficult and how important it is to overcome that kind of thinking.
It was just last month that a closely divided court, reasoning that voter discrimination in the South wasn’t the problem it used to be, neutered the requirement that certain states and counties with a history of such discrimination submit proposed voting changes to the federal government for approval. Last week, Holder said the Justice Department would use “every tool at our disposal to stand against discrimination.”
Meanwhile, in Texas, officials said they will proceed with a redistricting plan that dilutes Hispanic voting power, and an aggressive voter-identification law besides. And in North Carolina, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill of such brazenness that it can be more aptly described as an attempt to restrict voting procedures rather than reform them.
In 2013 alone, more than 80 bills restricting voting rights have been introduced in 31 states. Meanwhile, the incidence of actual voter fraud hovers near zero. (Kansas, site of one of the first coordinated crackdowns on voting rights, has had more documented cases of UFO sightings than of voter fraud.)
There is a desperate quality to these laws. Texas Republicans pushed through the legislature a law that allows a concealed-carry gun permit to be used as voter ID but does not allow a student ID from a state college. In North Carolina, a bill imposes a voter-ID requirement even while invalidating several forms of government- or public-employee ID, including student IDs or IDs issued by public-assistance agencies. It reduces early voting and eliminates same-day voter registration, both of which have been disproportionately favored by the state’s black voters. It repeals the mandate for high-school voter-registration drives. And it eliminates a tax deduction.
Wait: Republicans voted to end a tax deduction? Yes, the bill would end a $2,500 child-dependency tax deduction for parents in North Carolina if their college-enrolled children vote where they attend school. Because students tend to be at college in November, when general elections are held, this amounts to punishing parents if their children vote away from home.
As the Supreme Court rightly pointed out, such restrictions are a far cry from the poll taxes, literacy tests and state- sanctioned violence of the Jim Crow era. Yet their discriminatory effect is still pernicious.
Which brings us back to the Supreme Court’s decision last month. The pre-June 2013 Voting Rights Act allowed for a kind of double standard: States with a history of voter discrimination had to prove that any changes to their voting procedures were not discriminatory. Now it is up to the plaintiffs, in Texas or any other state, to prove that they are.
Holder said last week that he will ask the courts to essentially put Texas back on probation - to require that it get approval beforehand for any changes in its voting laws. The department will also support a lawsuit by Democrats and civil- rights groups against the state’s redistricting map, which a federal court panel deemed a product of “discriminatory purpose.”
This is hardly ideal. The executive branch is by definition more partisan (still) than the judiciary. At least the double standard that applied to so many Southern states under the old Voting Rights Act had the support of Congress and the force of law. Now the Obama administration’s every attempt to prevent voter discrimination will become mired in partisan, local and racial politics.
That doesn’t mean Holder is wrong. The Justice Department’s involvement in the lawsuit against Texas is both welcome and necessary. Better still would be a Congress, and a Republican Party, equally dedicated to protecting the right to vote.