Column: Court decision erodes voter protections

By Mike Eldleman

There has been recent discussion as to whether high walls, razor-wire fences and surveillance cameras are still needed to help keep inmates inside our prisons.

Statistics show that escape is not a problem as less than one-half of one percent of our prison population escapes, and the numbers have continued to decline over the years.

Perhaps the years of needing so much security are behind us.

This is, of course, not true at all, and we can all agree it is a silly premise to assume that because so few people escape, we no longer need a mechanism to keep them from doing so in the future.

We can be sure that less security would mean many more escapes, and that these security measures are the very reason those numbers are so low.

While this premise seems ludicrous, similar logic was used by the Supreme Court earlier this week when a 5-4 ruling said the portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that determines what states must seek federal approval for election changes was deemed unconstitutional.

Under the provision, nine states were required to seek preclearance through the U.S. Department of Justice before making election changes due to these states having a history of voting rights issues.

In this week’s ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts said the provision was no longer current and relied on old data that did not reflect racial progress and change.

That is a very dubious assumption because it can be argued that these provisions played a key role in what progress has been made. Removing them simply opens the door for regression.

The most fundamental of all rights in our nation is the right to vote. We proudly claim that we do not change our society through violence but peacefully through elections. If we do not protect the right to vote, we undermine what we are all about.
The opportunity to have your say in who leads us, sets policy for us and spends our tax money is fundamental to all things we aspire to be.

The chance to band together with like-minded individuals to effect change through peaceful, democratic means is something unique, and while not perfect, is practiced best in the United States.

In 1965, we passed a law intended to protect that right after a long history of abuse. Since 1965, we have renewed this law numerous times.

Times have certainly changed, and for the most part we no longer face blatant voter oppression or threats of violence when it is time to vote, but subtle tactics do the same damage when we disenfranchise voters.

The Texas Voter ID law, which was not enacted because of the preclearance provision is now being fast-tracked during a special legislative session and will soon be law in Texas.

Opponents of the law call it a hurdle for some groups when it comes time to vote. They say many will not go to the Department of Public Safety for the free voter ID card because of mistrust. They say many can’t afford to purchase a copy of their birth certificate if they do not have one and thus will not get the card.

Those who favor the law say it is about voter fraud, but there is no evidence of voter fraud escalating. In fact, statistics show voter fraud has reduced dramatically in recent years.

Now these arguments will not be made in a hearing, but only on the legislature floor where politics, not fairness, rules the day.
It is also clear that we have not come as far as many want to think we have in terms of race, religious and ethnic relations. This week a Minnesota state legislator referred to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as an “Uncle Tom.” He later retracted the comment, saying he was not aware it was a derogatory term.

An Oklahoma state legislator commented in April about a small business issue, saying “They might try to Jew me down on price.” He also later apologized.

There are dozens of instances where our elected officials across the country have used derogatory terms to refer to Hispanics, African Americans as well as other ethnic and racial minorities.

If these people – the ones who will be determining the fairness of our election policies – can’t eliminate racist thoughts and language from their lives, how can we assume we have come so far as a society that the need to have extra safeguards in place is outdated?

Today, if someone believes a particular election law is unfair, he or she must take up legal action on their own to address the issue. This means a much more drawn-out, expensive process and will likely leave most unable to challenge the law effectively. Preclearance provided that scrutiny and oversight that now becomes the burden of individuals.

Perhaps preclearance for a handful of states and not the others is outdated. The court’s actions opened the door for Congress to revise the law and update those requirements, but now we are relying on politicians again to seek out the fair and right answer rather than the politically beneficial one.

Will Congress take action to ensure voter rights are protected first and foremost, or will we leave this door open to new discrimination and simply hope our better selves will prevail where they have not in the past?