The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 and included a number of “emergency” provisions that were set to expire as early as 1970 but were extended and amended in 1970, 1975 and 1982. They will soon be extended for a fourth time, two years before they are due to expire—and for another 25 years. This bipartisan rush illustrates the descent of the residue of the civil-rights movement into the barren politics of gesture and nostalgia. The eager participation of Republicans demonstrates cravenness and two kinds of opportunism, one deservedly futile, the other disgracefully successful.
Consider the “preclearance” provision that requires certain jurisdictions get the federal government’s permission to make any change—even as small as moving a polling place—in electoral arrangements. The places bound by the preclearance provision are identified by a formula based on minority participation in elections more than three decades ago. The results are weird. Virginia is covered, West Virginia is not. Arizona is covered, New Mexico is not. Texas is covered, Arkansas is not. Three boroughs of New York City—Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx—are covered, Queens and Staten Island are not.
Preserving such antiquarian nonsense is, for Democrats, easy obeisance to clamorous supporters. For Republicans it is a grovel intended to make them attractive to African-Americans and to immunize them against Democratic demagoguery such as Howard Dean’s synthetic anguish about “rolling back the right to vote.” Furthermore, for two decades Republicans have connived at using the VRA to enhance their congressional strength, at the cost of deepening the polarization and Balkanization of the electorate.
In his 2006 edition of “The Almanac of American Politics,” Michael Barone notes that in 2004 George W. Bush received only 51 percent of the vote, yet carried 59 percent of the congressional districts. And John Kerry won 80 percent or more of the vote in 20 districts, but in no district did Bush win 80 percent. One reason for this, Barone says, is the Voting Rights Act:
“Under the prevailing interpretation of this act, redistricters are obliged to maximize the number of districts with majorities or near-majorities of blacks and Hispanics. That means that redistricters bunch very large numbers of heavily Democratic precincts into a few districts and keep them out of adjacent districts where the political balance is much closer. The Voting Rights Act, thus interpreted, tends to result in the election of more blacks and Hispanics and fewer Democrats.”