Thus wrote Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts concerning the South’s posture toward equality at the ballot box. For context, we should note Roberts is a man born in upstate New York in the mid-1950s, raised in Indiana, educated in Cambridge, Mass. (Harvard for both undergrad and law school) and who has spent almost all of his working life in New York City and Washington, D.C.
Roberts was writing for a 5-4 majority in a ruling announced Tuesday that seriously weakens the Voting Rights Act, which was first enacted in 1965. As brilliant and insightful as Roberts is, it’s a stretch to imagine this non-Southerner has the background or experience to properly discern the political landscape of the South in all its complexities, contradictions, coded language, advances and backsliding. (Frankly, the South is likely as foreign to Roberts as it is to President Barack Obama.)
The majority’s ruling weakens the section of the Voting Rights Act that for more than 45 years has required the Justice Department to oversee how Southern states (and a small selection of non-Southern locales) regulate voting and elected districts. The act’s effect has been remarkable. For instance, the percentage of African-Americans registered to vote in Alabama has gone from 19.3 percent in 1965 to 72.9 percent in 2004, the latter figure being roughly on par with the percentage of registered white voters.
While access to the ballot box for black voters has improved dramatically, as Roberts’ opinion highlights, regulation over representative districts has been less spectacular. According to a Justice Department review looking at the period between 1995 and 2004, the federal government challenged very few redistricting plans — less than 0.1 percent.
Five justices were persuaded that, as Roberts wrote, the South is a different place than the one that until 50 years ago employed all sorts of legal barriers to deny black people the right to vote.
It has changed, and yet in many ways this judgment is not as crystal clear as Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Roberts would have us believe. First do no harm should have been the court’s guiding principle. In recent years, state legislatures, including most across the South, have enacted stricter voter-ID laws with scant regard for eligible voters who might be caught in the crossfire of laws that look for all the world like methods of voter suppression.
Not to worry, say the Alabama Republicans running the show in Montgomery. The court’s ruling Tuesday puts the state back in the driver’s seat after decades of federal oversight. House Speaker Mike Hubbard echoed many of those voices when he announced, “Today’s ruling clearly states that our constitutional rights as Alabamians take precedence over the wants and whims of liberal Justice Department bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. Starting today, Alabama will be able determine its own destiny when it comes to campaigns, elections and voting procedures in our state.”
The well-studied historian and the rationale observer of the current state of Alabama politics can take no comfort from Hubbard’s declaration.