Voting is one of the sacred entitlements of every American, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been one of the most powerful legal tools to ensure citizens of equal access to democracy.
It's no surprise that reaction to a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling Tuesday that gutted the act would be swift, hard and passionate. But just as those who try to keep some Americans from the polls should not rejoice at this decision, those who battle the insidious erection of voting barriers should not despair.
The court's majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, allows nine states, mostly in the South, to make changes to their voting laws without prior federal approval. These states had been subject to the act's "preclearance" provision due to a history of discrimination that sought to limit the participation of minorities in voter registration and elections. Declaring that the "country has changed,"
Mr. Roberts wrote that the evidence of discrimination used by Congress in 1965 to determine which states needed clearance from the Justice Department was outdated. Indeed, many backers of the act probably didn't think it would be necessary five decades later.
He cited contemporary data that showed African-Americans voting and registering to vote in those states at levels comparable to whites. For the first time, blacks even exceeded whites in voter turnout nationwide, 66 percent to 64 percent, in last November's presidential election.
Although schemes to keep some citizens away from the polls have not been banished from the land, African-Americans, through the Voting Rights Act and other laws, have caught up to their white counterparts in registering to vote, participating in elections and winning office. One can see proof of that by looking at the White House.
It may be small comfort to rights advocates, but Justice Roberts' opinion upheld the use of the Voting Rights Act, so long as Congress updates the formula for which states and counties must submit to preclearance. Today such action is a fantasy, given the present makeup and behavior of Congress. But it's not up to the Supreme Court to figure out how to end gridlock in the legislative branch.
Those who were dismayed by the court's decision cannot afford to be discouraged. They must continue to seek legal redress for voting rights violations. Although minorities have been a frequent target of such efforts throughout history, other Americans are subject to modern-day attempts at marginalization. Voter identification laws, gerrymandering schemes and similar maneuvers -- dubbed "second-generation barriers" to ballot access by dissenting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- are also used to cut citizens out of the process or steer election outcomes. Pennsylvanians need only look at their own voter ID statute, which the Republican House majority leader proclaimed last summer would help elect Mitt Romney president.
Ken Gormley, dean of Duquesne University's law school, says today's threats to voting rights are not confined to the South. "If Congress started going through every state with a history of problems, I'm sure Pennsylvania wouldn't be exempt from that," he said. "Certainly there are parts of the state where people argue there are efforts to silently disenfranchise."
The painful loss of one of the most powerful remedies spawned by the civil rights movement must not deter those who wage the fight for equality. Racial progress has been achieved and voting rights have been secured, but advocates must remain ever vigilant -- in any state where a plot to constrict voter access rears its ugly head.