24 November 2014

Beware the stranger bearing gifts. Or as the law teaches, caveat emptor, buyer beware. Look before you leap. All these warnings apply to the emerging Republican positioning on the Voting Rights Act.

Forty years ago, after the bloody march in Selma, Ala., Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which requires that states with a history of discrimination get pre-approval from the Justice Department for any changes in their voting procedures.

This was a great victory for the movement that Dr. Martin Luther King led. Give us the vote, King taught, and we can begin to change America. As African Americans were able to register and vote and segregation slowly came to an end, a new South was created. The New South became a center of investment.

Politics changed, too. As Lyndon Johnson predicted when he signed the Voting Rights Act, Democrats paid a great price for being the party of progress. In the South, Republicans made themselves the party of white sanctuary. The current Republican majorities in the House and Senate are founded on the racial politics of the South.

In 2007, the Voting Rights Act must be reauthorized. This requires congressional hearings on the evolving history of racial discrimination in the South. By demonstrating the reality that minorities still face discrimination -- from voter intimidation, racially motivated redistricting, racially biased disqualification standards, racially biased distribution of voting machines and much more -- Congress can re-establish the precedent for maintaining strict scrutiny over those states with a history of legalized discrimination.

Will the Republican Congress reauthorize the Voting Rights Act? When asked in a meeting with the Black Caucus of the Congress, President Bush said he didn't know anything about the question. But as governor of Texas, he led one of the states covered by the Voting Rights Act, and so he must have known what it entailed.

Now some GOP leaders are suggesting that the law be made "national and permanent." That sounds good. By making it national, strict scrutiny will apply to all states. By making it permanent, the periodic battles over reauthorization will not be necessary.

But beware. This plan, hatched in right-wing think tanks, sounds good, but is designed to gut the Voting Rights Act. By making it national and permanent, the Congress would set the act up for being ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Since the act focuses on race, it requires strict scrutiny to make certain there is a rational basis for its provisions. If it is made national and permanent, divorced from the record of discrimination that requires special review, the act could well be deemed unconstitutional. Republicans will have used the court to murder the Voting Rights Act while pretending to have clean hands.

If Republicans were serious about electoral reform, there is a simple alternative. Reauthorize the Voting Rights Act and maintain strict scrutiny on the states with a long history of race-based discrimination. Then pass a constitutional right-to-vote law for every American, making our Constitution as sensible as the election laws we helped write for Iraq. The states with a history of segregation would stay under scrutiny, and voting rights across the country would also gain greater protection.

But Senate Majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and House Majority Tom DeLay of Texas are maneuvering to use the courts to gut the Voting Rights Act. (And to insure the courts go their way, they are ready to trample the rule of the Senate to pack the courts with right-wing zealots.)

Bush is using his faith-based initiative to help purchase allies in the churches. He'd like to focus our attention on gay marriage and abortion, even as he attacks, first, affirmative action, and now voting rights.. For African Americans, this is the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing. And we'd better watch out or we'll wake to find the wolf has made off with all of the rights that we fought so hard to achieve.