Contrary to the assertions of many critics, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court did not return the nation to the age of poll taxes and other racial discriminations with its voting rights ruling Tuesday. It merely ruled that the current year no longer is 1965.
That fact is clear in everything from fashion to electronics, but it is hard for many people to understand that it's true, as well, in the realm of Americans' behavior, attitudes and demographics.
The court did not strike down the Voting Rights Act nor lift the nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting. Congress may still set a special formula for overseeing voting laws in certain jurisdictions where discrimination has been a problem. But it did rule that the current formula, which has been in effect about 40 years, no longer is valid.
The ruling is an important official acknowledgment that conditions change with time, and that special remedies have a shelf life, no matter how closely associated they are with an emotional and bitter chapter in the nation's history. If a formula has served its purpose and no longer addresses relevant problems, it should not remain merely as a cultural and political touchstone.
"If Congress had started from scratch in 2006 (the most recent time the act was renewed), it plainly could not have enacted the present coverage formula," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. "It would have been irrational for Congress to distinguish between states in such a fundamental way based on 40-year-old data, when today's statistics tell an entirely different story."
Section 4 was enacted as part of the 1965 act to place special conditions on nine states that had used poll tests, literacy requirements or other similar devices as ways to keep black voters from casting ballots. Those states could not enact laws regarding voting without federal approval, whereas the other 41 states could.
As part of its ruling, the court's majority included a chart of voter turnout by race that clearly showed black citizens today are participating in the electoral process to an equal degree with whites in those states. For example, only 6.7 percent of Mississippi's eligible black voters were allowed to cast ballots in 1965. In 2004, 76.1 percent of eligible black voters participated, which was nearly 4 percent higher than the white turnout. In addition, we note that black candidates have won important local and statewide races in the states under scrutiny.
Critics of the court's decision note that the states in question are likely to enact laws on early voting and on requirements that voters show identification before receiving a ballot. But those are issues in many states other than the nine that were under special scrutiny. Voters who feel aggrieved by these rules may still take legal action. Just as importantly, Congress may write new rules to address such issues if it feels they come in conflict with the Voting Rights Act.
But the burden ought to be to demonstrate real harm, just as the court has demonstrated the real progress brought about by the act. The ruling is an important acknowledgment of states' rights, removing what Roberts correctly cited as "extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem."