When the U.S. Supreme Court last heard a challenge to the Voting Rights Act three years ago, Chief Justice John Roberts warned Congress that it needed to take a fresh look at the 1965 law. The formula used to determine which states needed federal approval to change voting procedures was based on data that was almost 40 years old. “Things have changed,” Roberts wrote.
Congress, being Congress, did nothing.
Last week, the Court again took up the Voting Rights Act, and based on skeptical questioning from the justices, observers of the Court predict that critical sections of the VRA are likely to be struck down.
The law was designed in part to address discrimination in mostly Southern states, where officials attempted to deny blacks the right to vote. Although that type of racism has improved most everywhere in the South, it still exists, from overly restrictive voter ID laws in Texas to districts designed to limit black representation in other states. In Shelby County, Ala., which brought the current case before the court, two cities in the past 10 years would have gerrymandered blacks out of representation, if not for the feds getting a first review.
But the justices also are considering a competing reality: Some of the states and jurisdictions the act originally covered, along with several states that were added when the formula was reworked in 1972, have improved. But they are still singled out for review – and stigmatized – based on data from 40 years ago. Some have better ratios of black voter turnout than states not covered by the law.
Experts have offered new coverage formulas that would improve the Voting Rights Act by having it apply to the states that actually need supervision. But Congress has cowed from that uncomfortable political task. Now, an important law is in jeopardy because of it, and Congress may face the even more difficult job of starting all over again.
Power vs. authority
An additional perspective on Charlotte’s airport tug of war: Pulitzer Prize winning author Robert Caro, speaking at Davidson College last Wednesday night, was asked about N.C. lawmakers wanting to transfer control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport from Charlotte to an independent regional authority.
From the college’s web site:
“Carol ended the evening with question from the audience concerning Charlotte’s hot issue of the moment and in reference to Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York: Is it a good idea for (state lawmakers) wanting to institute a public authority to run the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport?
“Caro’s response: ‘In Robert Moses’ form (of public authority), they were shielded so the minute they were created, the public had nothing to say over them. Today, they are above politics. Political power is supposed to come to us. So when you create a public authority, you are really removing that. Public authorities are not elected officials.’ ”
Why would elected officials think that’s a good idea? We’ll add that to the questions N.C. Sen. Bob Rucho and Rep. Bill Brawley, sponsors of the airport authority bill, haven’t answered yet.