Commentary: Disappointing Voices From the Supreme Court on Voting Rights

Antonin Scalia demonstrates that the nation has a long way to go in understanding the need for voting rights protection.

Posted: 02/28/2013 11:11 AM EST

The oral arguments in the Supreme Court on Wednesday on the topic of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 produced some strongly disappointing and galling moments, making it clear that there is ample cause for worry.

The case being considered by the court centers on Section 5 of the legislation, which allows the federal government to determine whether various jurisdictions will be allowed to make voting changes in elections. The section of the law involves nine states, most of them in the South, requiring them to get federal permission before changing voting procedures.

Under the act, the Justice Department has the authority to block changes in election regulations if it determines that the modifications will weaken the voting power of minority Americans.

The most shocking comment in the court’s discussion came from conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who referred to Congress’s renewal of the landmark civil rights legislation as “a perpetuation of racial entitlement.”

It was a comment that, in its stunning level of misguidedness, nonetheless served as an example of the kind of thinking that permeates the conservative minds of America. The protection of voting rights for African-Americans and other minorities is not a right that all branches of government should work overtime to ensure, they say. To their way of thinking, it is some odd racial entitlement.

In the logic of the far right, the United States is past the period where racial discrimination is an issue in voting. After all, we have a Black president who was elected twice, they point out. Furthermore, they contend, there are more African-American elected officials in the country’s southern states than at any other period in history. Why, they ask, should the federal government have the role of overseeing changes to voting provisions?

The fact of the matter is that the provisions of the voting rights law were not designed for the purpose of electing Black officials, as welcomed as that outcome may be. The law is designed to ensure that all Americans have unblocked access to the polling booth. The law is there to make sure that the right to vote is available to the widest number of Americans possible.

If the nation needed any reminder of the need for oversight of changing voting laws and practices, it need look no further than the events leading up to the 2012 election. A number of states with Republican-controlled legislatures did everything in their power to try to suppress the voting strength of Black and brown citizens through the passage of restrictive voter identification requirements.

One need only recall the words of Mike Turzai, the Pennsylvania Republican House majority leader, when he boasted last year that the state’s onerous voter identification law “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win” the presidency.

In short, the Voting Rights Act’s key provision entitles no one to anything apart from a goal of protecting voters from racial discrimination.

The simple truth is that we are living in an era where the rights of voters are very much at stake. Conservative Republican control of statehouses around the country has resulted in the most widespread assault on minority rights that the nation has seen since the end of Reconstruction. It would be comforting to know that the justices on the highest court in the land would see a need that is so apparent.

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(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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