Editorial: Keep sharp watch on voting rights

Published Feb. 26, 2013

The last election cycle demonstrated that if given a chance, lawmakers will manipulate rules for voting and elections for partisan advantage. Florida's 2011 election law was an overt attempt to make it harder to register and vote, with the subtext being to discourage minority voters and give Republican candidates a boost. It took federal judges acting under the preclearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to force at least some adjustments. The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments today over whether to continue preclearance requirements, and if it overturns those requirements, it will harm voting equality and the fairness of the nation's elections.

Under Section 5 preclearance, any changes made to election laws or procedures, from new district lines to limits on what documents qualify as appropriate voter identification, must be preapproved by the U.S. Justice Department or a special three-judge federal panel for areas with a history of discrimination. The challenge by Shelby County, Ala., claims that the conditions that once warranted federal oversight no longer exist and preclearance jurisdictions are being unfairly targeted. These include nine states — mostly in the South — and scores of counties and municipalities, including five counties in Florida: Hillsborough, Collier, Hardee, Hendry and Monroe.

It's true that black voters are no longer subject to lynchings and other Southern terror for exercising their right to vote. But Congress has reauthorized Section 5 multiple times, with the last time being in 2006. And the Justice Department continues to have to turn back voting changes that would suppress the vote of minority citizens. For those jurisdictions that can demonstrate a clean record for 10 years, the law already has an escape clause that allows them to be freed from Section 5.

The court's conservative majority is likely to rule against Section 5. That would willfully ignore the recent efforts made by Republican-controlled states to manipulate elections by infringing on minority voting rights. Think about the swath of strict voter ID laws in some preclearance states with rules that disproportionately harm poorer residents who tend to be minorities. Preclearance jurisdictions still draw more than 80 percent of the lawsuits where voting discrimination has been proved.

Florida's experience is an example of the benefits of Section 5. After state lawmakers cut early-voting days from as many as 14 to eight, a federal panel refused to approve that change unless early-voting sites in the preclearance counties were open for the maximum number of hours. African-American voters tend to rely more heavily on early voting.

The impulse by lawmakers to protect their own power by limiting the voting rights of opponents' supporters remains too strong. Preclearance prevents a lot of this mischief and blocks much of the rest. It should be allowed to stand.