In our opinion: Dramatic transformation over past century demonstrates progress on voting rights

Published: Monday, April 21 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Voters cast their votes through absentee ballots at the town hall in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

Associated Press

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In the realm of civil rights for blacks, our nation has undergone a dramatic transformation over the past half-century. If we hadn’t gotten to the point that we are at today, our nation might still need the federal government to strictly oversee election laws in certain states where voting discrimination had, historically, been a systematic problem.

If our nation hadn’t undergone the broad transformation that it has in attitudes about race, then some states might still, if left to their own devices, re-enact poll tests, literacy requirements or other impediments designed to keep black voters from casting ballots.

But so deep have been the transformation in attitudes toward blacks holding public office that we doubt anyone really believes this would happen.

Yet President Barack Obama, in a recent attack on Republicans, equated voter identification laws in effect in 34 states with those earlier attempts to disenfranchise black voters. Those earlier state laws led to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which required federal oversight of election laws in nine states.

Last year, the Supreme Court struck down the formula used for overseeing those states, ruling it was outdated and irrational under present realities.

Congress recently struggled over possibly introducing a new formula. The compromise would reduce the number of states with federal oversight to four, and would still allow for voter identification laws. But the bill is not expected to survive the rancorous political divisions in Congress.

For once, inaction in Washington is a good thing.

Some apparently want the nation to believe voter ID laws, which require people to show some form of identification before receiving a ballot, are a throwback to Jim Crow days. In the president’s words, “The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago."

But as The Wall Street Journal recently opined, “if the states are secretly trying to suppress minority turnout, they're doing a lousy job.”

As Census data show, the 2012 election was the first in which black voters cast ballots at a higher rate (66.2 percent of eligible voters) than white voters (64.1 percent).

Compare this to 1965, when, as the Supreme Court noted last year, only 6.7 percent of Mississippi’s eligible black voters were allowed to cast ballots.

Census figures also show black voting rates jumped 13 percentage points from 1996 to 2012 — despite voter ID laws.

Based on a review of voter participation rates, it is very hard to credibly claim that the right to vote, for blacks or other minorities, is being threatened.

Politicians sometimes accentuate the negative to suit campaign strategies. In this case, there has been no demonstration of harm. The danger in such a tactic is that real and demonstrable progress will be blurred and public confidence eroded in an electoral system that is fairer than ever.

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