The left and the right are both wrong about the Voting Rights Act.
I agree with the right, and disagree with the president and other Democrats, that it’s a good thing that the Supreme Court has struck down the provision requiring South Carolina and other pariah states get preclearance of any change in voting procedures.
That requirement was fundamentally unjust. It assumed a guilt on the part of these states, and required them to prove their innocence before they could conduct their own voting business in ways other states were free to do without undergoing such procedures.
This was wrong. It condemned people who had absolutely nothing to do with past discrimination — all those who were guilty have long, long ago left office, and most are dead. Everyone in public office, appointive or elective, today has spent his or her entire career, if not entire life, in a world shaped by the provisions of the Voting Rights Act. It is completely unjust to require that some people, and not others, labor under the burden of greater suspicion because of the accident of where they happen to live.
If someone did enact new voting lines or procedures, and they in some way violated the Act, then they were subject to being accused of doing so, and having to answer for it. That will still be the case without preclearance. And that is the way it should be. Individuals, and governments, should have to answer for what they do wrong, and not be automatically punished with suspicion over everything they do.
So… preclearance has been an unjust burden, as conservatives say. And it’s particularly hard to justify such an injustice in a time when, for instance, minority voter participation is better in Mississippi than in Massachusetts.
However… where the right is wrong is when it says that the Voting Rights Act is a huge success, particularly for minorities, and that it has moved us racial discrimination in our politics.
On the contrary, under the Voting Rights Act, we have a new kind of racial tension in our politics. Conservatives rail at Democrats, saying the liberals only want to keep the thumbscrews on the South so they can draw more minority-majority districts. And perhaps they do, if they are fools. For in fact, the drawing of such districts has been a tremendous boon to white Republicans.
White Republicans in South Carolina seized power in the early ’90s by giving the Legislative Black Caucus more districts that were likely to elect black legislators. The way this was done was by putting as many black voters as possible into a few districts, and given the racial patterns common to both black and white voters, those districts had a greater tendency to elect black candidates.
But the truth, which for some reason is not painfully obvious to everyone, is that you can’t make some districts super-black without making surrounding districts super-white. What this meant was that for each new “black” district, you created several districts far, far more likely to elect white Republicans. Not only that, but a certain kind of white Republican — one far less likely to give a damn about the concerns of the black citizens who live in other districts.
So, you get two kinds of people — those from majority-minority districts, and those from ethnically cleansed white districts — who are elected BECAUSE of racial considerations, and who know that.
And the way they start to engage issues starts to reflect that. You can see it in debates over public health, education, and all sorts of things that we desperately need to be considered with regard to the good of all the public. Instead, what we get is a few lawmakers elected from districts with a high poverty rate (which tends to correlate to race, although it’s certainly not a one-to-one relationship). They tend to see the value in, say, expanding Medicaid (especially when the federal government is picking up the tab).
But they are outvoted by people from suburbs who can honestly say that their constituents don’t care about such things, and who can afford to treat the whole thing as an abstract, ideological issue. They can dismiss health care reform designed to provide care for the uninsured for something as frivolous as the fact that the name “Obama” is attached. Their constituents are largely fine with that. That is to say, enough of them are to keep electing the same kinds of representatives.
And so we don’t get policies designed for the benefit of the whole state. Because neither kind of gerrymandered district “looks like South Carolina.” Neither represents whole communities, but rather subsets of communities, defined by race. So relatively few legislators see themselves as there to serve a broad range of people in different circumstances, with different viewpoints.
It’s great that we don’t have poll taxes. It’s great that minorities who were marginalized are now so engaged with the political process. In those respects, the Voting Rights Act is a great success.
And we have seen success stories that give us hope for a future without elections that are predetermined by the skin color of the electors. Barack Obama’s two election victories offer that kind of hope.
But on the district level, our politics are still largely defined by race. And there, the Act has not been such a boon.