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June 28, 2013 9:43 AM Voting Rights Affect Everybody, Everything

By Ed Kilgore

Are you one of those progressive folk whose eyes glazed over at the highly legalistic debate over the Supreme Court’s destruction of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but thrilled at the human drama of Wendy Davis’ filibuster of a Texas abortion bill?

As Adele Stan points out at RH Reality Check (which she recently joined full-time), the two issues are actually intimately associated:

Were it not for the VRA—and, specifically, the section of the act struck down by the Court—Wendy Davis’ historic filibuster of the draconian anti-abortion bill, SB 5, would have never taken place. That’s because, without Section 4 of the VRA, a redrawing of her Fort Worth legislative district by the GOP-controlled legislature would have robbed her of her seat in the state senate in 2012.
As MSNBC’s Zachary Roth explained, presciently, earlier this month:
“The GOP plan radically changed the demographic makeup of Davis’ district, among others, moving tens of thousands of black and Hispanic voters into neighboring districts. In fact, of the 94 precincts that were over 70% minority, Republicans cut out 48 (see maps of District 10 here). In the new map, blacks and Hispanics were placed in separate districts from each other and were outnumbered by the white conservative majority, which tends to vote Republican.
“Davis and her constituents had one recourse: The Voting Rights Act. Under Section 5 of the landmark civil-rights law, election changes made in certain areas with a history of discrimination—including Texas and most other southern states—can be blocked by the federal government if they might reduce the voting power of minorities….”
So Davis challenged the GOP redistricting under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, based on her state’s place on the list in Section 4 that required “preclearance” by the federal government of changes to voting rules. Texas’ place on that list was well-earned, like the other nine states designated therein, because of its long history of disenfranchising voters of color.
Davis won the challenge, and was allowed to run from her district as previously constituted, eking out yet another narrow win over her Republican challenger.
Now that Section 4—that list of nine states and jurisdictions within seven others that were subject to federal review of voting rules—has been struck down by the Supreme Court on the laughable logic that racial discrimination against voters has been pretty much fixed, Section 5, which allows those alleging disenfranchisement in the Section 4 jurisdictions to submit their complaints for federal review, is rendered moot unless Congress acts to arrive at a new formula for scrutiny. No one expects that to happen.

Well, I wouldn’t say no one thinks Congress will “fix” Section 4. At The Nation, George Zornick explains how the “fix” could occur, and notes some scattered expressions of interest in making that happen (the two most influential voices so far being Eric Cantor and James Sensenbrenner). But the fact remains it’s a very long shot. Celebratory southern Republicans sure aren’t acting like there’s any chance they will be restrained by preclearance requirements in the future (as Stan notes, Texas didn’t wait even a day to begin implementing a new and restrictive voter ID law that had been subject to preclearance review).

So it’s an immediate problem, and not just for minority voters:

You’d be forgiven for seeing, if you did, the Roberts decision on VRA as a strike at the heart of the progressive coalition—because it is. Not only does it create the conditions for cementing the double-power-smashing-whammies of race and gender for African-American and other women of color; it acts as a growth hormone for white, male power. Its effect will be to consolidate power among political entities that seek to roll back the individual rights of all who are not white, male, and heterosexual.
Groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law will have their hands full, because without Section 4, states and other jurisdiction no longer have an incentive to avoid gaming the system for white or right-wing control, and each infraction will have to be litigated on behalf of the disenfranchised—people who traditionally lack the money and access to power to do so.
If you think the right’s attempts to suppress the vote were egregious in 2012, just wait until the next election. Better yet, don’t wait, because your constitutional guarantees will rely on the investment of all in the progressive coalition to stem a growing tide of efforts designed to make some votes more equal than others.
Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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