Arizona launches attack on Voting Rights Act

OPINION - It seems the GOP is on a campaign to rewrite American history and erase the lessons learned from the Jim Crow era, the effects of which still imbue our society...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

There is no debating Arizona is known for its deserts, but it appears to be a mirage of democracy as well.

Following last year’s intense debate over the state’s controversial new immigration law, largely seen as a deliberate attack on Mexican immigrants and their families; the state’s Attorney General has now decided to challenge Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which was explicitly designed to protect minority voting interests.

The decision follows a continuing trend by Republican lawmakers across the country to undermine the votes of minorities and the poor, in an effort to secure a win against President Barack Obama in 2012. There’s a not-so-subtle strategy in motion, and it is time for Democrats and progressives to tighten their defense and start playing hardball.

Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck a serious blow to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires voting districts who have historically engaged in discrimination to “pre-clear” any new voting rules with a federal court or the Department of Justice.

Though the High Court kept the law in place, it stipulated that voting districts could “bail out” of the law if they can show they’re no longer engaged in race discrimination. With such vague parameters, 17 districts across the country have already been allowed to bail out of the provision.

But last week, Arizona decided that being able to bail out simply was not enough and have chosen to challenge the Constitutionality of Section 5 in Federal Court. Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, a Republican, said that the portion of the law requiring the state to get prior approval from the Justice Department for any changes exceeds Congressional authority and is unconstitutional.

“The portions of the Act requiring pre-clearance of all voting changes are either archaic, not based in fact, or subject to completely subjective enforcement based on the whim of federal authorities,” Horne said in a statement.

The Arizona lawsuit argues that Section 5 unfairly singles out certain states without requiring every voting district in the country to comply. In line with the anti-Federalist Tea Party rhetoric, Horne said Washington punishes states with “random enforcement based on the whim of federal authorities.” He continued, “Arizona has been subjected to enforcement actions for problems that were either corrected nearly 40 years ago and have not been repeated, or penalized for alleged violations that have no basis in the Constitution…that needs to stop.”

It seems the GOP is on a campaign to rewrite American history and erase the lessons learned from the Jim Crow era, the effects of which still imbue our society. It seems they believe that 40 years is enough time to correct atrocities that lasted for centuries.

Even Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, the Republican presidential hopeful, tells tall tales of how the Founding Fathers abolished slavery, and many Americans — Republican primary voters — are prone to believe her. Her recent win in the Iowa Straw Poll certainly makes a point about her misguided appeal.

Most disturbing is that what is happening in Arizona is only a symptom of a greater problem in America’s body politic. Kristen Clarke, a fellow Grio contributor, has reported extensively on legislative efforts unfolding across the country including mandatory government-issued photo identification laws, proof of citizenship requirements, reductions in voting hours and burdens imposed on those seeking to conduct voter registration drives. Collectively, as Clarke writes, “these laws represent a new form of 21st century voter suppression that bears an uneasy resemblance to historic efforts to deny black voters access to the franchise.”

Republican lawmakers and their shrewd political allies have waged war on the Obama nation. Having seen the positive effects in 2008 of increased voter participation among African-Americans, Latinos, younger, college-educated voters and the poor — the GOP is now hell-bent on undoing that progress. The successful dismantling of ACORN was the first major blow to increased voter participation in minority communities. And now Republicans are pushing new voting laws to create barriers to voting, all under the guise of eliminating fraud.

When Arizona passed SB 1070 last year, it became the harshest, broadest and strictest anti-illegal immigration measure in recent U.S. history. Critics of the legislation were out-raged because it appears to encourage police harassment and racial profiling. The law is the first to make it a state crime for an alien to be without required documents, and calls for the “lawful stop, detention or arrest” if there is reasonable suspicion. It seems this idea of “legitimacy” will now be applied to voting rights as well. And Arizona’s Attorney General has made it clear he intends to take his case to the Supreme Court.

Despite the fact that the Fifteenth Amendment prohibits laws that interfere with voting based on race, and the Voting Rights Act protects the rights of minority voters, eliminating any barriers which would obstruct voter rights, the Republican Party seems committed to challenging the rules. For a group who claim to be constitutional conservatives, they seem to overlook the most basic Constitutional rights.

Attorney General Eric Holder vowed to defend the law in court. In a statement released by the Justice Department in response to Arizona’s legal challenge, Holder wrote, “The Voting Rights Act plays a vital role in our society by ensuring that every American has the right to vote and to have that vote counted. The Department of Justice will vigorously defend the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act in this case, as it has done successfully in the past. The provisions challenged in this case, including the pre-clearance requirement, were reauthorized by Congress in 2006 with overwhelming and bipartisan support.”

If Arizona is successful in gaining a Supreme Court hearing, the current balance of conservatives on the high court could spell doom for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This would be tantamount to disenfranchisement. It is time to organize, educate and spread the word.

2012 approaches and we cannot afford to ignore the writing on the wall.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is an author, columnist, political and economic analyst, and a former investment banker. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.