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Statistics are outdated; voting vigilance isn’t

We share President Obama’s dismay over the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act on Tuesday, yet we also recognize the opinion is fundamentally correct. Or, flipped the other way: We agree the ruling was legally sound, but also know Congress must urgently respond in a way that ensures all Americans have unfettered voting rights.

Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requires nine states and dozens of counties (including 40 in North Carolina) to secure federal approval, or preclearance, before changing any election laws. Section 4 of the Act lays out the formula for determining which states are covered, because of past racial discrimination, and which aren’t.

The court, in a 5-4 split decision, ruled that Section 4 is unconstitutional. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, pointed out that the formula uses data that are 40 to 50 years old – data that bear no resemblance to reality today. If Congress is going to take certain states’ authority over elections away (and not others’), it must do so based on current realities.

Democrats and liberal groups across the nation cried foul. But it’s impossible to argue with Roberts’ facts. Under Section 4, states today are subject to preclearance based largely on their voter registration and turnout numbers in 1964, 1968 and 1972. That made sense when the law was passed in 1965 and subsequently renewed.

But voting statistics and minority participation are dramatically different today than they were 40 years ago. Indeed, black voter turnout is higher than white voter turnout in five of the six states originally covered by the Act. And the five worst uncovered states have fewer black officeholders and lower black registration than almost all the covered states. Clearly, the formula is outdated, no longer tied to current voting practices.

“At the same time, voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that,” Roberts wrote.

Modern-day efforts to suppress the minority vote are rampant, and not just in the mostly Southern states subject to preclearance. Voting laws in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin have been challenged. Before the 2012 election, South Carolina’s voter ID law was approved by a federal judicial panel only after the state made significant changes. Judges also put new Florida and Texas election laws on hold.

Such efforts suggest that while literacy tests are history, their legacy is not. Congress should surprise critics and approve new voting rights legislation that protects the sanctity of the vote while passing constitutional muster. All Americans should pride themselves on living in a country that erects no barriers to its citizens voting in fair elections.

Racial discrimination is a deep and searing wound on our nation’s psyche, and the Voting Rights Act was more than a bill. It was a symbol of America’s continued evolution toward fulfilling its founding creed. So any ruling that weakens it is fraught with not only practical ramifications but psychological ones as well. Even rulings that are right about the statistical evidence cannot rush us into a post-racial era before we’re truly there.

Those who agree with the court’s decision and those who don’t perhaps can celebrate together the one fact that most drove it: Voting and elections in America have become more inclusive of minorities in the past 40 years than they did in the 200 years before that.

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