The case did not involve Arkansas, but it brushed against Arkansas, in more ways than one.
It was Shelby County v. Holder, and it arose from the state just to the east of us. The U.S. Supreme Court announced its finding on Tuesday.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark accomplishment of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, was effectively neutered by the court, which declared that nine states, most of them deep in the Old Confederacy (though not including Arkansas), need no longer obtain permission from the U.S. Department of Justice before redrawing legislative districts (federal, state or local) and making other changes to voting statutes or protocols.
To be certain, dozens of local jurisdictions across the nation, some of them in the urban northeast and others in the Plains and beyond, were placed under scrutiny of the act, which was designed to combat white majority attempts, previously largely successful, to disenfranchise minority voters — African-American, Latino, Native American, Asian, whatever. But the law was indisputably aimed primarily at Dixie, and it was in Dixie that it indisputably had its greatest impact.
In the near half-century since the statute took effect the politics of the Old South may have grown steadily redder, in partisan terms, but it has grown markedly blacker. A region in which black voter registration and thus black turnout formerly was a sliver of its potential had produced a lily-white class of city, county and state officials. The Voting Rights Act struck at minority disenfranchisement de jure and de facto and the terror that too often enforced it, and the outcome was a surge in African-American councilmen, mayors, sheriffs, judges, representatives and senators state and federal. Indeed so many people of color are now in elected positions of authority in the South that their number was frequently cited as justification for the elimination of the Voting Rights Act.
“Our country has changed,” said Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the 5-4 majority that has come to represent our country’s present stark ideological divide. We may soon enough learn how permanent that change will be.
The involved locales were freed from federal supervision because, the court said, the data by which they were included by Congress was unconstitutionally outdated. And while it all but invited Congress to reassess the situation and, were it to choose to, draw up new standards, the very idea struck most political and legal observers as almost ludicrous. A Congress that cannot approve a budget, cannot compromise on an immigration bill, cannot come to terms even on a farm bill — that is a Congress that will tolerate no serious discussion of any substantive new voting rights legislation. And not just the unruly, rule-resistant GOP-controlled House: call up a red-blue map of the states and you’ll see a lot more red than blue below the Mason-Dixon line; factor in the vast swatch of crimson that stretches to the eastern edge of the Pacific Coast states and then try to find 60 votes in the Senate.
So, the connection to Arkansas, which was not covered under the (now meaningless) Voting Rights Act?
In a sense it was covered, and still is. Under another section of the act still in force, every state (or subdivision thereof) is liable if plaintiffs can prove deliberate and/or avoidable dilution of minority voting strength. Ten such actions were brought in Arkansas — the cases involved, among others, Pine Bluff, Crittenden County, Little Rock and Blytheville — in the quarter-century ended in 2005. Four succeeded, enough to rank Arkansas in the eight states or venues in which were adjudged the most violations; and enough to place it, statistically, among the states that were covered under the provision the Court struck down.
And more: evidence suggests Arkansas is among the five states (Massachusetts and Minnesota are two others, if that provides any regional psychic comfort) with the greatest disparity in voter registration by race. Put another way, the percentage of eligible white voters registered in Arkansas quite exceeds the percentage of eligible blacks registered.
That last statistic, plus the voter ID statute engineered by Arkansas Republicans and approved this year by the General Assembly, provide the blueprint for a comprehensive and long overdue voter registration drive. Such a campaign could not merely energize the Democratic Party in Arkansas but demonstrate whether it exists.
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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and host of Arkansas Week on AETN.