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Commentary: For voting rights, as with security, err on the side of caution

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 11, 2009 - We often warn that we can forgive a transgression but that does not mean we forget. There is a reason we have increased airport security and baggage restrictions post 9/11. We don’t want to take the chance that the same thing will happen again.

These ideas were swimming through my head as I considered the challenge brought before the Supreme Court. In Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, the high court must consider Section 5 of the voting rights act. Under this section, changes in election procedures must be cleared by the federal justice office for nine states and parts of seven more. Most of these states are in the Deep South and include Texas, Arizona, Alaska and parts of New York and California. The rationale is that these areas, as argued by a lawyer from the NAACP, have a history of “persistent and adaptive violations.”

To be clear, the entire act is not under question -- despite what an email forward might tell you. The act as a whole makes impeding the right to vote illegal. Therefore, this case is not about whether we protect the right to vote or not.

What this case is about is whether certain areas should be required to have federal oversight of voting changes. Justice Alito questioned why all states were not required to have such interference. I agree that voter suppression, redistricting and other methods of hindering voters are alive and well in more than these 16 states. While theoretically I would wholeheartedly support a national watch of sorts that would highlight the wide variety of methods used to make it more difficult for African Americans, Latinos and non-native speakers to vote, I would ultimately be concerned about the ability of the government to oversee such a large operation.

I was initially swayed by the arguments of the jurisdiction in Texas who brought the suit. Canyon Creek is a new community that didn’t even exist when the act was put into place, so why should it have to be under this law? However, upon examining the arguments further, I was less convinced.

I learned that filing a preclearance request takes approximately 30 minutes. In addition, a bailout provision is already included in the act. If an area has consistent compliance and no objections, it is eligible to file and no longer be covered by section 5. In addition, three states currently covered (Mississippi, Louisiana and North Carolina) signed onto a brief siding with the government and said that the coverage is not burdensome.

Professor Lani Guinier of Harvard Law School responded to a caller on NPR’s Talk of the Nation who likened section 5 to a stoplight. Her addition was that if a stoplight has been deterring accidents in an area where previously people were not adhering to law, you cannot simply advocate for removal of the stoplight. Perhaps the number of violations has decreased. But that is in part because of the stoplight.

I am sympathetic to the arguments, yet -- returning to my original thoughts -- we would not loosen airport restrictions and security on the grounds that there has been a decrease in terrorist attacks. We would not accept the argument that the stigma we feel when we must take our shoes off and be wanded is a reason to lift what is in place to protect the rights, the lives, of many. So while I can see the argument for sovereignty and see flaws in the particular way the section is applied, it seems that we might have deterred some violations in the long run. The extent of that we might never know.

Some people have argued that in the age of Obama, we no longer need such coverage. Others have argued that it is because of such legislation that we have come to the age of Obama. Again, it is hard to measure the extent to which each side it “right.” My hunch is that it is not either/or but rather both/and. Perhaps Congress does need to revamp the formula for what areas are subjected to increased scrutiny under the Voting Rights Act, but in the meantime, it does not appear to be an undue burden on the affected parties to maintain the provision.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon. 

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