Parts of North Carolina and Alabama are challenging the Voting Rights Act in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Try not to freak out, now. Yes, both states have histories of racial discrimination at the ballot box. Yes, both are challenging the part of the act that specifically addresses said histories. Yes, Texas and South Carolina tried to do the same this year. Yes, they both have good reasons to do it and you can’t instinctively assume they’re trying to justify discrimination, although I’m sure some of you will try. Read on before you do.
The first challenge, the one from North Carolina, concerned a 2009 measure in the city of Kinston that would leave candidates’ party affiliations off future ballots. The Obama administration used the requirement known as pre-clearance to block the move, “saying black voters would be more likely to vote for the wrong person under the new rules.” Later, lawyers for Alabama’s Shelby County challenged the same requirement, calling it unfair and archaic.
Which it is. Pre-clearance means all changes to voting laws in states with histories of race-based voter discrimination have to be cleared with the federal government. The Voting Rights Act was adopted 47 years ago. I’m not going to be pretend either North Carolina or Alabama, or any other state for that matter, has become a bastion of interracial harmony where anyone who so much as makes a racist joke is isolated from society. But it’s worth asking if this 1965 law is proportional to 2012 circumstances.
For the record, I’m very supportive of a measure that would leave party affiliation off ballots. This could incentivize voters to learn more about the people they’re voting for in their own districts, instead of just learning about the parties. But citing likely mistakes by black voters as a reason to block this? If the Obama administration isn’t depending on black voters in North Carolina automatically voting for Democrats, they’re doing a pisspoor job of hiding it.
There comes a time when the necessity of old laws and old ways of thinking fades into resentment, and perhaps that time is soon. Pre-clearance is holding back a measure in a North Carolina city that has the potential to improve the quality of civic participation. Arguments in favor of continuing to punish Shelby County and the rest of Alabama are based on pure distrust. That doesn’t make good policy – at least not anymore.
They don’t have to repeal pre-clearance right away. But the idea that Congress voted to renew it for another 25 years in 2006 is absurdity. All that extra bureaucracy for a problem that exists in such short supply today? It’s already created new problems; we shouldn’t wait too long for it to create more.