After an election that at times appeared destined to be marred by blatant attempts to suppress the minority vote through voter-ID laws and other devices, the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 is again under a legal microscope.
A cynic might see a conspiracy in the right-leaning Supreme Court's deciding only days after President Obama's reelection to revisit the constitutionality of the law. The court agreed to hear a challenge by an Alabama county that wants to void the law's requirement that certain voting districts get clearance from the Justice Department before changing election rules or procedures.
But there's good reason for that requirement. Congress approved the Voting Rights Act to stop officials in all or parts of 16 states with a history of discrimination from disenfranchising minority voters through a variety of tactics, such as putting polling places in locations inconvenient to minority groups or drawing voting districts to dilute their strength.
Critics say the law is a relic from the Jim Crow era that steps on the sovereign rights of states. They say the progress the South has made in race relations since 1965 invalidates the need for the law. The law's opponents make a point in saying the South of Bull Connor and church bombings is long gone, but that doesn't mean voters are always treated equally.
Recent efforts by Republican administrations in a number of states, including Pennsylvania, which tried to use ID laws to discourage minorities from showing up on Election Day, showed federal oversight is still the best tool in many situations to thwart attempts to suppress voting.
In fact, the Justice Department used the Voting Rights Act to successfully block restrictive voter-ID laws in South Carolina and Texas, which might have kept many minority voters from exercising their rights in the last election. The declared intent of voter-ID laws is to prevent fraud at polling places. But their proponents have yet to provide a shred of evidence that voter impersonation is a problem anywhere.
Congress has repeatedly renewed the Voting Rights Act, most recently in 2006, when it extended its clearance requirement for 25 years. Three years ago, the court decided by an 8-1 margin in another case to leave the clearance section intact, but the justices also indicated its days may be numbered.
Given that hint, it's too bad Congress didn't try to address complaints that the law should be updated so any jurisdiction that can show it no longer requires intense federal oversight might have an avenue out. Instead, Congress left the law's opponents an opening for this new challenge.
For some time, the court has been signaling its lack of patience with civil-rights-era laws and policies that it feels should be near the end of their shelf life. In its 2003 Bollinger decision, the court suggested 25 years should also complete the life span of affirmative action. The court may be right. But as the 2012 election showed, reaching that point is still a goal, not an accomplishment.