Editorial: Voting rights still need to be safeguarded

Published: Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 10A

One hard lesson from the 2012 election is that Americans' right to vote can't be taken for granted.

Too many had to wait too long, or jump through too many hoops to reach the ballot box. Too many politicians schemed to tilt the outcome by putting hurdles in front of certain groups.

That's reason enough why Congress should support measures to modernize our election machinery, and why the U.S. Supreme Court should not undermine the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But Wednesday, the high court strongly hinted it is ready to roll back, if not entirely strike down, a key part of that law. Under Section 5, nine states, most in the South, and parts of seven others, including three counties in California, must get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or a federal court before redrawing election districts or changing any voting procedures – to make sure minority voters won't be disadvantaged.

In the Alabama case before the court, the law's opponents argue that it's unfair for those states to continue facing additional scrutiny when so many blacks and Latinos are being elected and when practices like literacy tests and poll taxes are only in the history books.

In questions and comments, the court's four conservatives appeared to agree the law is outdated, unconstitutional or both. Justice Anthony Kennedy of Sacramento, who is often the swing vote, also seemed skeptical that a law nearly a half-century old is still needed. Ticking off other legislation that has passed its shelf life, he declared, "Times change."

The court, which is expected to rule by June, has already tweaked the law, ruling in 2009 that jurisdictions can get out from under Section 5 by demonstrating a clean record over 10 years. That's what Merced County did to be taken off the list last August. Now, only three California counties – Kings, Monterey and Yuba – are still covered.

There's plenty of evidence that the court ought not to go further – and should defer to our elected representatives.

It was only after hearing lots of testimony about continued, if more subtle, discrimination that Congress overwhelmingly voted in 2006 to extend Section 5 for 25 years. And last year's election demonstrates that the rights of voters need to be jealously safeguarded.

Indeed, challenges under Section 5 blocked some of the most egregious efforts to suppress the vote, such as requiring certain photo IDs and limiting early voting. It was also used last year to reject a redistricting plan in Texas that would have undercut Latino voting power.

What happened in 2012 has re-energized efforts to fix voting problems. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California is pushing a bill from last year and has signed on Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, where voters endured the longest waits, as the lead co-sponsor. The LINE Act would require new national standards by Jan. 1, 2014, on the minimum number of voting machines and election workers to ensure no voter would have wait longer than one hour in any federal election.

In the House, nearly 170 Democrats are behind the Voter Empowerment Act, which calls for streamlining voter registration and for banning some practices used to try to purge registration rolls.

There ought to be enough common ground to send a meaningful bill to President Barack Obama, who staked out his support during both his inaugural address and State of the Union speech.

So far, Democrats are out front on this issue, but it should not cause yet another partisan spat. Everyone should want free, fair and smooth elections.

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