By striking down a portion of the Voting Rights Act on Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively left Congress and the Alabama Legislature with the responsibility of protecting minority voting rights.
Sadly, neither has shown much indication it is up to the task.
The justices correctly noted that the rampant and undisguised racism of 1965, when the Voting Rights Act passed, has eased somewhat. What has replaced it, however, is just as pernicious.
Intense partisanship, merely an obstacle to good governance in most situations, takes on an evil cast when applied to the politics of race.
Rather than try to adjust their party platform to attract black Americans, Republicans in many states — including Alabama — have erected barriers to keep them from voting.
The state’s Voter ID law is the most recent example. In-person fraud at polls is essentially nonexistent in the state. Because blacks are less likely than whites to have photo identification, the transparent purpose of the law is to create an additional hurdle to keep them from exercising their right to vote. Gerrymandered voting districts also dilute the political influence of blacks in state elections.
This is not, of course, racism in the conventional sense. If most blacks voted Republican, we have no doubt the Republican-dominated Legislature would scrap the Voter ID law.
Instead, it is an ugly shortcut. Rather than adopt policies that are attractive to all Alabamians, regardless of race, the Republican Party is seeking to disenfranchise those who they believe are more likely to vote for Democrats. The open affront, of course, gives black Alabamians even more reason to spurn the Republican Party.
The court invited Congress to amend the formula for determining which states and other voting jurisdictions should remain subject to the preclearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act. Congress, of course, is incapable of passing anything. The U.S. House of Representatives is so virulent in its distrust of the federal government that it seems inconceivable that it would take any action to resurrect the Voting Rights Act.
With Congress paralyzed, it is the Alabama Legislature that must assume the responsibility of leadership.
It’s tough to convince politicians that anything trumps strategies for partisan success. As Alabama tries to shake its tragic history of racism — from slavery to segregation to voter suppression — partisanship needs to take a back seat. Rather than looking for ways to keep blacks from voting, the state Republican Party needs to increase its credibility among black voters.
A good way to start would be the repeal of the Voter ID law before it takes effect in June 2014, or at least a responsible study on its likely affect on minority voting.
The state Legislature had the luxury of engaging in the politics of race when it knew the Justice Department was likely to invalidate discriminatory laws. That luxury ended with Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision. If Alabama is to overcome its past history and current reputation for racism, it is up to the Republican-controlled Legislature to do what is right.