The Unintended Consequences of the Voting Rights Act

Comedian Bill Maher. He recently tackled the Voting Rights Act. Photograph by Janet Van Ham/HBO

At a sensitive and historic moment in racial relations in the U.S., late-night comedian Bill Maher has offered some of the most provocative commentary on the future of civil rights.

I will explain.

On Sunday, March 3, black leaders marking the anniversary of a famous Alabama freedom march passionately decried the challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. Just four days earlier, the justices heard oral arguments in an attempt by mostly white Shelby County, Ala., to strike down a key portion of the act.

The five politically conservative members of the high court are thought likely to side with the county on the part of the law that requires (mostly Southern) states with a history of racial discrimination to get approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before making changes in election laws.

Recent political contests have raised painful questions about the legacy of the civil rights movement, including iconic protests such as the March 1965 march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery, which was marred by the “Bloody Sunday” beatings of voting-rights demonstrators. In the 2012 presidential election, Republicans supporting Mitt Romney used a variety of voting-law changes, including state voter-ID laws, to try to inhibit minority participation.

Democratic backers of President Obama went to court, relying on the Voting Rights Act, among other legal provisions, to defeat many of the Republican gambits and help the incumbent win reelection.

Joining black leaders at the Selma march commemoration, Vice President Joseph Biden cited contemporary voter-ID laws as an echo of more explicit attempts decades ago to block African Americans at the polls.

Republicans argued in 2012 that the voter-ID push was aimed only at preventing fraud, a claim denied by Democrats. Before the Supreme Court, lawyers for Shelby County have contended that the Justice Department should no longer have the authority to “pre-clear” voting-law changes in states covered by the Voting Rights Act because the contemporary South isn’t permeated by racism. As evidence, Republicans have pointed out that African Americans hold one-fourth of the seats in the Alabama legislature, and that an African American has twice been elected to the White House.

Romney added another dimension to this fraught discourse on Sunday, when he emphasized during a closely watched interview on Fox that he “did well with the majority population” but lost because large portions of the nonwhite electorate rejected his candidacy. “The weakness our campaign had, I had,” he told Fox, “we weren’t effective in taking my message primarily to the minority voters—Hispanic Americans, African Americans, and other minorities—and that was a real weakness. We did well with the majority population but not minority populations, and that was a failing. That was a real mistake.”

Asked by Fox host Chris Wallace to elaborate on his “mistake,” Romney reiterated the main point he made during a conference call with some of his donors immediately after the election. In that call, the defeated candidate said Obama had won by providing minorities and women with taxpayer-funded “gifts.” On Fox, Romney said: “Well, I think the Obamacare attractiveness and feature was something we underestimated in … particularly lower incomes and, we just didn’t do as good a job at connecting with that audience as we should have.”

All of that sounds a lot like Romney’s notorious assessment of the “47 percent” of Americans he described to another batch of contributors as moochers who feel victimized and entitled to shelter and food and whatnot. (During Sunday’s Fox interview, he said the 47 percent remark was “unfortunate” and “not what I meant.”)

So while Chief Justice John Roberts and the Supremes ponder the relevance of the Voting Rights Act, let’s stipulate that race still colors our national politics. That’s not, however, the same as saying that the Voting Rights Act has been an unalloyed blessing. Here’s where Maher came in with a trenchant observation otherwise absent from the debate.

After the Supreme Court arguments, Maher took to his HBO show to point out that rather than helping minorities, the act may actually hurt their interests by encouraging gerrymandering, the creation of largely white districts, and the election of “crazy right-winger Republicans.” Bizarrely, as Maher delivered his comments from behind his television-studio conference table, marijuana advocate and rap goofball Snoop Dogg sat next to him, grinning.

Maher raised an important point. While the voting rights revolution of the 1960s and ’70s enfranchised millions of blacks, it also opened the door to an era of cynical political-map drawing in which newly empowered African American power brokers collaborated with conservative Republicans to create both majority-black districts and what Maher called “lily-white districts.” This tacit political segregation put more blacks in Congress, but at the cost of strengthening the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

On balance, I don’t think Maher’s observation constitutes a sufficient reason to roll back the Voting Rights Act. (I doubt he does, either.) But the comedian astutely reminded his audience that racial politicking can have unintended consequences well worth continuing attention.

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