In his eloquent speech at the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma, Ala., President Obama did more than salute the men and women who braved “billy clubs and the chastening rod; tear gas and the trampling hoof” to demand the right to vote. He also exhorted Congress to honor their legacy by restoring protections of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court stripped away almost two years ago.
Noting that some 100 members of Congress had come to Selma to commemorate the march, Obama said: “If we want to honor this day, let that hundred go back to Washington and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore that law this year. That's how we honor those on this bridge.”
Yet, thanks largely to opposition from Republicans, prospects are poor for legislation that would restore a role for the federal government in combating racial discrimination in voting.
In 2013, the court's conservative majority struck down the formula used in the 1965 Voting Rights Act to determine which states and localities must “preclear” voting procedures with the Justice Department or a federal court. Although all 50 states are prohibited from engaging in racial discrimination in voting, preclearance made it harder for states with a documented history of discrimination in voting, most of them in the South, to return to their old ways.
In rejecting the formula, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. complained that it was rooted in data from the 1960s and '70s and didn't reflect current conditions, including increased political participation by African Americans in the South. There was some truth to that, but the Constitution entrusts Congress with enforcing the 15th Amendment's ban on racial discrimination in voting, and Congress had reauthorized the formula by huge bipartisan majorities in 2006.
Once the court ruled, it was up to Congress to update the criteria for preclearance. Under legislation introduced a year ago — and recently reintroduced in the House — preclearance for 10 years would be automatically triggered if a state anywhere in the nation committed five voting-rights violations over a 15-year period. Judges could also require preclearance in egregious cases in which an election practice had the intent or the effect of violating voting rights.
African Americans no longer face billy clubs and tear gas when they seek to exercise the right to vote, but subtler forms of discrimination persist, and not only in the South. The best way to address them is through a national preclearance standard that addresses the court's concerns while restoring protection for minority voting rights. Republicans in Congress can't credibly honor the men and women who marched in Selma and oppose legislation that would safeguard and extend their achievement.