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Time to Take Section 5 Nationwide?

3:37 PM, Apr 29, 2009 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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The Washington Post published one of its trademark editorials this morning ("Keeping the Polls Open") about a Supreme Court case that may decide the fate of Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires 16 Southern states to obtain approval from the Justice Department before altering statewide and local voting procedures.

Yes, says the Post, Barack Obama is now president of the United States, and "thousands of African Americans ... serve in public office at all levels. Section 5 is indeed a powerful and intrusive tool ... [but] Section 5 is, sadly, still relevant and necessary today."

Really? At the time, the states in question objected to Section 5 for two principal reasons: First, it arrogates to the federal government power over voting procedures, which should be left to the states; and second, it singles out 16 Southern states for punishment when there are clear, historic patterns of racial discrimination in other parts of the country.

Three times in the last 44 years Congress has renewed the Voting Rights Act, partly because to let it lapse would appear to acquiesce to conditions (not to mention political leaders) that have been gone for a generation, but largely because Section 5 nicely confines itself to close supervision of those 16 Southern states--and nowhere else.

It is difficult to know what the Supreme Court will decide, but if Congress is determined to retain the Voting Rights Act, why not fairly extend the provisions of Section 5 to all 50 states? Or put another way: Why renew a law that applies to the Mississippi and Alabama of a half-century ago when Congress could extend its purview to discrimination in, say, today's Illinois or Rhode Island or New Jersey or Michigan?