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Voting Rights Act is an Important Moral Statement

It is morally unacceptable when racial discrimination prevents eligible Americans from participating in our democracy. Under the Voting Rights Act, that interference is also legally unacceptable.

February 25, 2013

Cross­pos­ted at Sojourn­ers.

Our coun­try’s laws repres­ent our values and our moral compass as Amer­ic­ans. They set norms, define trans­gres­sions, and mete out consequences for actions. And almost 50 years ago, our nation real­ized the harass­ment, intim­id­a­tion, bureau­cratic shenanigans, and viol­ence so many African-Amer­ic­ans and other minor­ity communit­ies exper­i­enced when trying to exer­cise their rights to vote and parti­cip­ate in our great demo­cracy. Our intol­er­ance of such injustice led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — a great triumph in the defense of life, dignity, and equal­ity.

Notwith­stand­ing the near-univer­sal praise the Voting Rights Act has received for ending some of the most overt discrim­in­at­ory prac­tices in our coun­try’s voting history, there are some saying the Voting Rights Act’s time has passed. In fact, on Wednes­day, the Supreme Court will hear oral argu­ments from Shelby County, Ala., that a key provi­sion of the Voting Rights Act is uncon­sti­tu­tional and should be struck down. These argu­ments are misguided. The Voting Rights Act remains a vital piece of our national moral commit­ment never to permit racial discrim­in­a­tion in elec­tions again.

The Voting Rights Act does a number of things. It outlaws liter­acy tests in specific areas, appoints federal exam­iners in certain prob­lem­atic areas to register voters and monitor elec­tions, and crim­in­al­izes voter intim­id­a­tion, threats, and coer­cion. The Act also sets up a “preclear­ance” process that requires certain places with the worst histor­ies of discrim­in­a­tion to gain approval from a federal court or the Depart­ment of Justice before making elec­tion changes. These juris­dic­tions must prove that any change was not designed for, or have the effect of, discrim­in­at­ing against minor­ity voters.

This proced­ure makes sense to me. A just govern­ment is an insti­tu­tion — like the church and the family — that is ordained of God. We would­n’t be very good stew­ards of that insti­tu­tion if we allowed racial discrim­in­a­tion to fester in our polit­ical processes until some private litig­ant mustered up the resources to chal­lenge all of the discrim­in­at­ory prac­tices on a one-by-one basis. The preclear­ance provi­sion, known as Section 5, ensures that we stamp out discrim­in­at­ory laws before they harm voters of color at the ballot box. And Section 5 is the part of the Voting Rights Act that is under attack.

When the lawyers square off in front of the Supreme Court on Wednes­day, there will be much talk of dry and tech­nical legal terms like “congru­ence and propor­tion­al­ity” and “cover­age formula.” In my mind, the legal issues are easy. The 15th Amend­ment to the Consti­tu­tion gives Congress the power to enact laws to prevent racial discrim­in­a­tion in voting, and in 2006, Congress voted to continue the preclear­ance process with a near unan­im­ous vote — 98–0 in the Senate and 390–33 in the House. The hard part is explain­ing to our citizens why, with all of the chal­lenges our coun­try is facing, some folks are work­ing so hard to end a proven and effect­ive tool in the fight to end racial discrim­in­a­tion in Amer­ica. There is no dispute that our coun­try has come a long way since the days of Jim Crow, and we should be proud of that progress. But we still have discrim­in­at­ory elec­tion prac­tices today. Just last summer, for example, a three-judge federal court concluded that the state of Texas inten­tion­ally discrim­in­ated against minor­ity voters in their redis­trict­ing process. Not acci­dent­ally. Inten­tion­ally.

The faith­ful are called to serve others and our communit­ies. Voting and polit­ical parti­cip­a­tion is one way of doing that. When racial discrim­in­a­tion prevents eligible Amer­ic­ans from parti­cip­at­ing in our demo­cracy, that racial discrim­in­a­tion does not just silence one citizen’s voice, it inter­feres with a servant of God perform­ing her or his duties to others. That inter­fer­ence is morally unac­cept­able, and under the Voting Rights Act, it is also legally unac­cept­able.

Photo by IslesPunk­Fan.