One might think that by year 2013, the question of whether or not people of color can vote in public elections would long have been relegated to the history books. Unfortunately, it is not a matter of the past alone.
It appears that the Supreme Court is poised to strike down section five of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, according to NBC News. For those who are unfamiliar with the act, section five states that certain jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination at polls must submit for preclearance from the Department of Justice before modifying any of their existing voting laws.
This legislation has been previously reaffirmed by the Supreme Court eight times in a variety of cases. Now, however, Shelby County in Alabama is challenging the section, arguing that it is irrelevant because there is no longer any significant voter discrimination. In Shelby County’s eyes, the provision is actually a discrimination against those jurisdictions that must report to the Department of Justice.
For Shelby County, there is no longer any legislation in practice that discriminates on the premise of skin color, and all current legislation officially encourages multiracial participation in the democratic process. They are right — there is no legislation that explicitly restricts minorities from voting. Yet, the viewpoint that voter discrimination does not exist has flaws.
Last year’s election saw, for the first time, the widespread implementation of new types of laws that don’t officially discriminate but still impact certain communities and races disproportionately. Some of these laws, widely known as “voter ID laws,” were implemented in an alleged effort to reduce the rate of voter fraud (notwithstanding that the rate of present voter fraud in the United States is somewhere between zero and negligible, according to ABC News).
By and large, these laws require voters to show up to the polls with a specific form of identification; it’s often a driver’s license, which many older minority voters simply do not have. Though these individuals can usually provide some form of identification, a citizen cannot vote unless the identification is the specific sort called for by the voting region.
Other forms of voter suppression were apparent too. In Ohio, legislation was passed that severely restricted the amount of time voters could mail in their ballot or vote early. Unlike prior years, which allowed up to five weekends’ time, citizens could only vote one weekend prior to the election. Indeed, early voting opportunities are usually taken advantage of by poor, minority and elderly voters, according to U.S. News & World Report.
It seems then that, counter to what Shelby County is arguing, the existence of voter ID laws and modifications to early voting processes in the 2012 election proves the necessity of section five of the Voters Rights Act even today.
Nevertheless, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia suggested last week that the only reason the Voter Rights Act has been reaffirmed so many times in the Supreme Court and Congress is because politicians are afraid of voting against a bill of “racial entitlement.” He goes on to say in his oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder to state that “whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.”
This isn’t so much a racial entitlement as it is a human entitlement; all people should be entitled to a voice in the American democratic process. Scalia’s viewpoint is flawed insofar as it views racial entitlement in this context as being bad.
The word “entitlement” does a lot to suggest a negative connotation, but I’d be wary of saying that any U.S. citizen is not entitled to the rights outlined for them in our founding documents. Is voting an entitlement? Yes, it is. But it is one guaranteed to all Americans and it certainly is not one that should be tied to race.
Matthew Tinoco is a freshman majoring in print and digital journalism.