Editorial: Congress must act to restore voting rights

Voter ID laws

An election official checks a voter’s photo identification at an early voting polling site in Austin, Texas on Sept. 2, 2014.

(Eric Gay / Associated Press)

A federal court could rule soon on challenges to North Carolina’s photo ID requirement for voters, which plaintiffs claim undermines the voting rights of racial minorities under the pretext of combating fraud. A federal appeals court held last year that a similar requirement in Texas violated the Voting Rights Act.

But even if these and other judicial rulings roll back photo ID laws and other restrictions that disproportionately burden racial minorities, the real solution lies with Congress. Republicans who control the House and Senate need to look beyond partisan self-interest and join with Democrats to reinstitute the requirement that, in jurisdictions with a recent history of discrimination, the federal government must “pre-clear” changes in election laws that could needlessly make it harder for minorities to vote.

Congress ... must undo the damage done to the Voting Rights Act by a 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted one of its key provisions.

It is Congress, after all, that is responsible for enforcing the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection of the laws, and the 15th Amendment, which prohibits abridgment of the right to vote on account of race. And it is Congress that must undo the damage done to the Voting Rights Act by a 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted one of its key provisions.

That wrongheaded ruling, which struck down Congress’ formula for deciding which states must get their election changes “pre-cleared” by the Justice Department or a federal court, left intact other provisions of the landmark 1965 law, including a nationwide prohibition of racial discrimination in voting.

Unfortunately, these provisions can lead to drawn-out litigation and are thus no substitute for pre-clearance, which can block a discriminatory practice before it goes into effect. (Texas’ photo ID law was blocked by the pre-clearance process, but implemented after the Supreme Court’s decision.)

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) has introduced the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would automatically subject a state to pre-clearance if 15 or more voting-rights violations had occurred there over the last 25 years (or 10 violations if one was committed by the state government itself). The bill would also require pre-clearance on a nationwide basis for some “covered practices,” including new requirements for “proof of identity.” Finally, it would make it easier for judges to determine that particular jurisdictions need to have their changes pre-cleared.

Some argue that restrictions on voting — from photo ID laws to cutbacks in early and Sunday voting — are motivated not by racism but by the desire of Republicans to dampen turnout among groups that traditionally support Democrats. That’s a feeble rationalization for what, in practice, is still racial discrimination. If Republicans are troubled by their lack of support in minority communities, they should reconsider their policies — not block access to the ballot box.

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