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Dionne: Fighting back on voting rights

  • (DAVID HORSEY / Los Angeles Times)

Attorney General Eric Holder has opened what will be an epic battle over whether our country will remain committed to equal rights at the ballot box. In a display of egregious judicial activism in late June, the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. Holder made clear last week he intends to fight back.

The struggle will begin in Texas, but it won’t end there. “We cannot allow the slow unraveling of the progress that so many, throughout history, have sacrificed so much to achieve,” Holder told the National Urban League’s annual conference.

He wasn’t exaggerating the stakes. From the moment the Supreme Court threw out Section 4 of the act, which subjected the voting laws in states and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to Justice Department scrutiny, conservative legislators in those places gleefully signaled their intention to pass laws to make it harder to vote. In addition, Texas re-imposed a redistricting map that a federal court had already ruled was discriminatory.

These hasty moves were unseemly but entirely predictable, proving that Chief Justice John Robert’s opinion in the case will become a Magna Carta for voter suppression.

Without having to worry about “preclearance” from the Justice Department, legislators can go about their business of making it more difficult for voters who would throw them out of office to reach the polls — and of drawing racially gerrymandered districts that prolong their tenure.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg understood a logic here that escaped Roberts. “A governing political coalition,” she wrote in her dissent, “has an incentive to prevent changes in the existing balance of voting power.”

This in turn means that when a political party fares badly with minority voters, it will try to turn them away from the polling booths. That’s what segregationist Southern Democrats did in the past. Many Republican-controlled legislatures are doing it now.

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