Honor Selma by Honoring Voting Rights

Retracing steps taken in 1965.

Photographer: Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

The 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the attack on blacks marching to secure the right to vote in Alabama, has inspired a popular new movie and an Oscar-winning song. But it has not provoked much new thinking about the future of voting rights.

At Saturday’s commemoration, President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush will pay tribute to the marchers and their historic achievement -- the 1965 Voting Rights Act -- by crossing the bridge in Selma where the attack occurred. That this bridge is still named for a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader reflects the hard truth that, for all the progress that's been made over the past five decades, pride and prejudice remain intertwined in Southern life.

Southern whites, however, are not the only ones who can find themselves trapped by history. Too many civil-rights leaders and their allies in Washington seem intent on re-litigating the debate over the Voting Rights Act, as though the political landscape has not changed radically since 1965.

But it has. Today, blacks in the old Confederacy register to vote at higher rates than whites, and they have voted at higher rates than whites in four of the past seven presidential elections. That is one reason why the Supreme Court struck down Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, which required a handful of states and counties (mostly in the South) to seek federal approval, or “preclearance,” before making any changes to their voting laws and procedures.

Rather than try to revive this narrow oversight procedure, as voting-rights supporters from President Obama to John Legend advocate, it would be better for Congress to broaden its approach beyond individual states -- and beyond race.

Voting is a universal right, and voter protections ought to be universally applied. While racism in politics remains, partisanship now poses a far more serious threat to voting rights.

The laws that voting-rights advocates object to most -- requiring voters to prove their citizenship before registering and to present photo identification at the polls -- have passed in states with small minority populations. For example, in Idaho, Indiana, New Hampshire and South Dakota, where Republican legislators have successfully passed photo ID laws, fewer than 1 in 10 residents is black. None of those states would be subject to preclearance under the Voting Rights Act patch now being advanced in Congress, which stands little chance of passage in any case.

The better way to guarantee access to the polls is to use technology to make it easier for voters in all states to register, get a photo ID and cast a ballot.

For instance, voters should be eligible to register online, as they can now do in about half the states. Those who arrive at the polls without a photo ID should be able to have their pictures taken and uploaded into electronic poll books, as Nevada’s former secretary of state has proposed. And voters should be able choose the polling place most convenient to their home or workplace, as many voters in Texas can now do.

A new voting-rights bill could embrace all these principles and make federal funding for new voting equipment contingent on states’ adopting them. The 2002 Help America Vote Act demonstrated that this carrot-and-stick approach can work to get states to upgrade their voting systems. Voting-rights advocates could also do more to capitalize on the strengthening liberal-libertarian alliance on prison reform, and push legislation that would bar states from permanently disenfranchising felons who have served their sentences.

The march for civil rights that is being commemorated in Selma changed the course of U.S. history. The best way to honor those marchers today is not to retrace their footsteps, but to forge a new path forward.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.