Defender of poll taxes and literacy tests. Opponent of desegregation laws. That's not the most promising biography for the man who could help pick our next Supreme Court justice. But this is the resume of Robert Bork, failed Supreme Court nominee and chief legal adviser to Mitt Romney who would help a Romney administration pick the judges who interpret the constitutionality of America's voting rights laws.
Three rulings in August show how important voting rights laws and the judges who apply them are. A panel of three federal judges struck down a redistricting scheme in Texas that was intentionally designed to discriminate on the basis of race. A separate panel prohibited Texas from putting into effect a voter ID law with a racially discriminatory impact. A third panel cut short Florida's effort to severely restrict early voting because it disproportionately hurt minority voters. In all three cases, our voting rights were protected thanks to the courts' application of the Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Act requires areas with a history of race-based voter discrimination to get federal government approval for any changes to their voting laws before the changes can go into effect. Safeguarding the basic right to vote is so essential that during the contentious civil rights era in 1965 the Voting Rights Act passed with overwhelming support in the House and Senate. Since then, it has been renewed multiple times by bipartisan majorities.
Most recently, in 2006, the Voting Rights Act was renewed for 25 years with nearly no opposition in the House (390-33) and unanimously in the Senate (98-0). Congress enacted it based on the 15th Amendment constitutional protection of voter rights: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude."
So why is our essential safeguard again at risk?
Even though the Supreme Court upheld the Voting Rights Act back in 1966, observers expect conservatives on today's court to accept right-wing advocates' invitation this term to strike down the federal pre-approval provision as violating states' rights. The court's five ultra-conservative justices -- John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito -- showed their disregard for the right to vote in 2008 when they upheld Indiana's voter ID law, then the strictest in the country.
If the conservative wing of the Supreme Court were to strike down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, that could be just the beginning. Mitt Romney has promised to appoint more federal and Supreme Court judges such as Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito -- ones who already have allowed corporations to have unprecedented sway over elections.
The Voting Rights Act protects voters, but who protects the Voting Rights Act?
The next president's judicial nominees will reshape the court that upholds and applies this essential law. As states restrict early voting, block voter registration drives and impose discriminatory photo-ID requirements, we need a Supreme Court that recognizes the importance of the right to vote.
Rev. John C. Welch is president emeritus of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network.