Our View: Thunderclap in the night

Posted: March 1, 2013

The question Wednesday resonated like a thunderclap in the night.

As prelude to the most riveting exchange of a brisk 70-minute oral argument about the ongoing need for, and continuing constitutionality of, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice John Roberts clicked off a number of remarkable facts suggesting racial disparities in voting were far greater in Massachusetts than in Mississippi. And then he directed this query to Solicitor General Donald Verilli:

“Is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North?”

Mr. Verilli answered “No.” Confronted by such declarative data as cited by Chief Justice Roberts, what else couldhe say? The evidence is clear: After laboring under the constraints of this law for nearly a half-century, the Deep South — Virginia included — is no different than the rest of the country when it comes to minority access to the polls. And in some instances, its record is far better.

Take, for instance, Mississippi, once ground zero (along with Alabama) of segregation and Jim Crow. As columnist George Will has observed, not only is its rate of voter turnout — blacks compared with whites — the best in the nation, but Mississippi also boasts more black elected officials than any other state in the nation. And not just more per capita, but more — period.

“Times change,” as Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy said Wednesday — and on no issue and in no place is that more evident than on voting rights in the Deep South. And yet its states and jurisdictions must still go, hat in hand, to Washington any time they desire a change in election law.

Even when enacted, Section 5 was viewed as nothing more than an emergency response to a despicable state of affairs. Well, that emergency is over. Donald Verilli, the government’s lawyer, admitted as much.