Commentary: A Heartbreaking Decision on the Voting Rights Act

In striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Supreme Court has done a disservice to voters and history.

Posted: 06/25/2013 01:21 PM EDT

It is simply heartbreaking to see the heart and soul of the landmark piece of legislation known as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 struck down by the United States Supreme Court. For years, this has been the piece of legislation that has assured that efforts to change laws that affect voters of color are monitored by the federal government.

It is the breakthrough law that represented the culmination of so many of the civil rights marches of the 1960s and the hopes and dreams of the foot soldiers and icons of a movement. It was the result of years of disenfranchisement and exclusion, of frustration and marginalization. Its roots went even beyond the period of Jim Crow America and the need for its renewal extended into the age of Obama.

The key provision of the Voting Rights Act required many states and local governments around the country, but largely in the South, to get permission or “pre-clearance,” from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington before any permanent changes in voting laws could be enacted. It is a provision that has been repeatedly revisited and upheld by Congress and by the Supreme Court itself.

“In 1965, the states could be divided into two groups: those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those without those characteristics,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority in striking down the provision on Tuesday. “Congress based its coverage formula on that distinction. Today the nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.”

Yet, the nation is now in need of voting rights protection as much as ever. And if there were ever evidence of the need of federal and judicial protection for the right to vote, that need was on full display during the 2012 presidential election. It was then that Republican-controlled legislatures throughout the county sought to enact voter identification laws.

One example of that came from Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai. Speaking to a gathering of the Republican State Committee, Turzai listed the accomplishments of the Republican controlled legislature in Pennsylvania during the hotly contested race between President Obama and Mitt Romney.

"Pro-Second Amendment? The Castle Doctrine, it's done," a boasting Turzai ticked off. "First pro-life legislation — abortion facility regulations — in 22 years, done. Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done."

Assaults on the right to vote are as alive today as they were in the era when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. And to see the core of those protections struck down by a conservative majority is more than just a disappointment. It represents a moment of anguish.

That point was made clear by Congressman John Lewis, the Georgia representative who played a seminal role in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

The Supreme Court, he said, “stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” Of the five justices who made up the conservative majority in this decision, he was particularly poignant.

“These men never stood in unmovable lines. They were never denied the right to participate in the democratic process. They were never beaten, jailed, run off their farms or fired from their jobs. No one they knew died simply trying to register to vote. They are not the victims of gerrymandering or contemporary unjust schemes to maneuver them out of their constitutional rights.”

The nation has changed far less than those five justices seem to believe. One can only hope that the courts and the government now without this vital tool will become even more vigilant in ensuring that the right to vote remains ever protected.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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