The United States Supreme Court opened a new term Monday in which it is expected to consider overturning a key portion of the Voting Rights Act. The justices need look no further than Florida to grasp the importance of upholding requirements that the Justice Department preapprove changes to voting laws in areas with a history of discrimination. Despite the considerable progress in protecting the rights of minority voters in Florida and throughout the South, the federal government still has a vital role to play in fighting discriminatory laws that suppress the vote.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is one of the enduring achievements of the civil rights era and includes two key parts. Section 2 bans any effort to restrict voting rights on the basis of race, a response to the poll taxes and literacy tests of an earlier time. Section 5 requires nine Southern states and portions of a few others, including Florida, with a history of discrimination to preclear changes in voting laws with the Justice Department or a panel of federal judges in Washington. In Florida, Section 5 applies to Hillsborough, Collier, Hardee, Hendry and Monroe counties, where there had been a history of discrimination against Hispanic voters. That preclearance provision has been challenged in the federal courts by a number of states, as Republican-controlled legislatures have passed new voting laws that have been opposed for good reason by the Obama administration's Justice Department.
Under Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Florida has tried to circumvent the Justice Department at every turn to implement policies that disproportionately affect minority voters. The state pursued its sloppy, ill-fated purge of the voter rolls without seeking preclearance under Section 5, and the Justice Department joined a federal court case that helped stop the initial effort. A second purge effort with a smaller list of suspected ineligible voters is still being contested in court. And instead of asking the Justice Department to approve unnecessary changes to voter registration rules and early voting, Scott went directly to the three-judge panel in Washington. That end run didn't work so well.
Another federal judge in May prevented the enforcement of a 2011 requirement that voter registration groups submit registration forms to elections offices within 48 hours rather than 10 days as the previous law required. And in August, the three-judge panel refused to approve the reduction of early voting days from 14 to eight because African-American voters clearly rely on early voting more heavily than other voters. Unfortunately, the judges gave the state an out and let the eight days stand after the five counties agreed to increase the number of hours the polling sites will be open to 12 each day. Even that modest accommodation would not have happened without Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Poll taxes, literacy tests and whites-only elections are long gone, but the states should not have the final say on voting laws and racial equality, as the recent battles in Florida have demonstrated. The federal government still has an important role to play in protecting voters' rights, and in 2006 Congress extended this portion of the Voting Rights Act for 25 years after considering thousands of pages of evidence. The Supreme Court upheld the provisions in 2009 even though some justices expressed reluctance. There is no reason to turn back the clock now — and every reason to hold Florida and other states accountable as they make it harder to register to vote and cast ballots in ways that disproportionately affect minorities.