The Magazine

Hyperventilating over Voting Rights

Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Scrapbook has said it before and will say it again: Not only has the 24-hour news cycle revolutionized the business of journalism, it has taken a certain amount of the fun out of reading all that 24-hour-cycle journalism.

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For instance, last Tuesday evening The Scrapbook had just settled in to enjoy the hysteria about the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act decision when—presto!—Wednesday morning brought tidings of the Court’s decisions on gay marriage. In a matter of a few hours, Supreme Court majorities were transformed from “five unelected, life-tenured men” (Andrew Cohen, the Atlantic) who had issued a “devastating blow” (Jesse Jackson) into champions of human freedom. 

All this is a symptom, of course, of human nature: We tend to admire people who agree with us and abhor those who don’t. But since most Americans, including most journalists, don’t fully understand the function of the Supreme Court—not to mention the complexities of its various judgments—modern journalism is especially vulnerable to getting things wrong. Decisions which are often very narrow, even legalistic, in scope are misconstrued as sweeping. And in case you hadn’t noticed, if the New York Times (or Slate or MSNBC or whoever) thinks the Court has erred, its decision is depicted as a symptom of the deep sickness afflicting American politics; but when the Court makes the “right” decision, it is an achievement of historic dimensions.

The decision on the Voting Rights Act is a case in point. The Supreme Court upheld the fundamental provisions of that historic 1965 measure; but it did strike down the section that had, 48 years ago, singled out a handful of Deep South states for special scrutiny by the Justice Department. This was, in the Court’s view, mere common sense. Proportionally speaking, there are far more black elected officials today in Alabama or Mississippi than in Connecticut or Iowa—and the America of 2013 is very different from the America of 1965, as President Barack Obama, in particular, must realize. 

“Congress,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, “must identify those jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense in light of current conditions. It cannot rely simply on the past.” 

If, however, you think that voting rights are as problematic today in South Carolina and Texas as they were a half-century ago, and that everything is just fine in Boston and Cook County, Illinois, then you would join the Democratic National Committee in condemning the Court’s decision as an “injustice”—but a great opportunity for more fundraising (“stand with Democrats who are fighting Republican attacks on voting rights”).

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