Does a federal law that applies to some states but not to others, even to some counties but not to others, make constitutional sense? That’s the question the country has been debating, sometimes bitterly, across political, geographical and racial lines for almost half a century now.
The law in question is of course the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which made the most fundamental right of citizenship a reality for millions of Americans, mostly black and mostly in the South, to whom it had been long denied through the slimiest and most cynical kinds of political chicanery.
The heart of the Act is that specified regions with a documented history of voter discrimination must get federal approval for changes in election procedures, including reapportionment. Both Alabama and Georgia fall under its mandate,
The argument now is whether the law has outlived not just its usefulness, but also its essential fairness (if indeed it was technically and constitutionally “fair” in the first place). Although its most outspoken political foes now are Republicans, the Voting Rights Act was extended most recently in 2006 by a GOP-majority Congress and signed by President George W. Bush.
One of the arguments against the law is that it relies on cases and statistics that are literally decades old, and is based in many cases on circumstances that have long since changed or vanished. Though the U.S. Supreme Court sidestepped the issue in a 2009 Texas case, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that some areas still governed by the law have better minority registration and voter rates than some that aren’t.
For me the most compelling argument now against the law is not racial and social progress over the last 47 years (though that certainly shouldn’t be ignored), but the principle that a United States law should apply to all 50 of said United States, not just to nine or 12 or 15.
Of course, even as I write this, the very states in question lead the nation in secession petitions after the reelection of President Barack Obama. If there’s a legitimate case against the Voting Rights Act, some among us are spectacularly inept in pleading it.