Grace: Political times changing

The U.S. Supreme Court’s reasoning for throwing out a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 boils down to a simple argument: times have changed.

Put aside for a moment the still-contentious question of whether they’ve changed enough in the states and localities — including Louisiana and the rest of the Deep South — that were originally singled out for stringent federal scrutiny of any change to voting procedures, be they new district lines or stepped-up identification requirements or relocated polling places, based on a past history of discrimination.

In addition to kicking that decision back to Congress, the court’s high-profile ruling also highlights some other genuinely stark signs of changing times, including to the nation’s political environment.

By a 5-4 vote that broke down along the usual ideological lines, the ruling acknowledged that bias still exists, but it invalidated the particular list of areas requiring advance approval (as opposed to being subject to lawsuits by aggrieved parties after the fact, as every jurisdiction in the country is) — even though that was part of an extension of the landmark civil rights legislation that Congress had approved overwhelmingly, by 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate.

That was just seven years ago, but it seems like a mythical golden age in the context of today’s Washington and the current Congress, which the court has now tasked with devising an updated formula for determining which areas should still be subject to so-called preclearance.

For one thing, today’s Congress doesn’t get much done at all. It also rarely comes down on the side of more federal oversight over states. And it certainly doesn’t come together over the sorts of partisan hot potatoes that this issue has now become. (The current polarization is actually one unintended byproduct of the Voting Rights Act, many analysts believe. By requiring that Congressional districts be drawn so that minority communities have a chance to elect a candidate of their choice — usually Democrats — the surrounding districts often become more white, and more uniformly Republican, than they might otherwise be. That means Congress has more members who represent relatively homogenous districts, such as Democrat Cedric Richmond and Republicans Steve Scalise and Bill Cassidy, and fewer members who answer to politically diverse constituencies.)

That’s another change the court’s decision spotlights: the extent to which the sort of battles over voting have become intertwined with partisan campaigns.

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, of course. Nor is it unexpected, given the extent to which groups protected by the act tend to favor Democrats over Republicans. But it has become more and more of an issue — particularly during the 2012 election cycle, when the Obama Justice Department fought a series of state-level initiatives such as stricter voter-identification requirements, which supporters claimed were designed to avert fraud (despite almost no evidence of significant abuse) but which disproportionately impacted poor and minority voters. In an election season that often seemed dominated by leaked videos of politicians speaking bluntly, one memorable clip came from a top Republican state legislator in Pennsylvania, who predicted that the new voter ID law — which was ultimately set aside by the courts before the election — would give GOP nominee Mitt Romney the edge over President Barack Obama in the state.

The very fact that the video came from Pennsylvania is another sign of the times. Some of the most aggressive and pointed voter laws in recent years have come from the states covered by the disputed part of the Voting Rights Act, including Texas and South Carolina, (but not, to its credit, Louisiana.) But controversies have also flared up in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio, which did not fall under the same deep scrutiny.

What those states do have in common, though, is that they were swing states in the presidential and congressional elections, considered central to both parties’ paths to victory.

Such examples may well provide grist for the argument that the old South should no longer be singled out, because now everyone does it. Maybe that’s true. Still, it hardly feels like a sign of progress.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.