The Supreme Court telegraphed four years ago that parts of the Voting Rights Act that allows for some federal oversight of state and local elections might be in trouble.
Today, the other shoe dropped. But not in the way most court watchers expected. It was expected the court would strike down Section 5 of the act, which requires federal clearance of changes to voting laws in states that have been put under federal review by Section 4 of the act, which lays out what constitutes a violation of voting rights that warrants federal oversight.
The court struck down Section 4 and left Section 5 intact. But as Justice Ginsburg said in her dissent, Section 5 is worthless without Section 4.
Without getting too deeply into the legalities of the ruling, what does it mean for Arizona?
Initially, not much. Arizona only rarely changes election laws that require Section 5 clearance (however, since the law applies to all of its subdivisions – counties, cities, taxing districts – the feds are frequently looking over Arizona’s shoulder, although the feds rarely object to the changes). But it does change the election laws every 10 years with redistricting, and that’s when we’ll se an effect on Arizona, likely for the better.
The current round of redistricting is in court and if a judge were to rule for a do-over, we could see an effect of the ruling sooner than later. Otherwise, this won’t really be an issue until 2021 (that is, unless the mostly white, Republican-controlled Legislature believes it can now get away with all sorts of election shenanigans that diminish the growing power of Latino voters in Arizona).
Arizona ran afoul of the feds in the 1970s for failing to have bilingual ballots. It has failed to get off the Section 5 preclearance list ever since despite having long ago remedied the bilingual ballot problem. It stays on the list because politicians who have a vested interest in keeping Arizona under Section 5 oversight use minor problems at the polls as examples of some sort of racist oppression. For instance, Arizona had an enormous problem with provisional ballots in the 2012 election because voters who got early ballots showed up to the polls to vote anyway. Many thousands of Latino voters were among the nearly 170,000 voters who did the same thing, yet Latino activists used it as an example of voter suppression.
The federal oversight has created a system of oxymoronic reverse racism in Arizona in which most of the state’s Latino voters are packed into a handful of voting districts. Those walled-off Latinos tend to vote for Latino representatives. The awful theory is that only a Latino can truly represent the Latino community, yet if the same were to be said of white voters the outrage would be volcanic.
The result of the racial gerrymandering is that despite ever-growing numbers of Latino voters in Arizona, their political power is not growing concurrently because they have only a few people to represent them.
Although Latinos account for more than a third of Arizona’s voters, they have only 22 percent representation in Arizona’s Congressional delegation (if you subscribe to the theory that only a Latino can truly represent a Latino), Reps. Raul Grijalva and Ed Pastor. Both are in racially gerrymandered districts OK’d by the feds under Section 5.
Yet if you unpacked those districts and distributed the state’s Latino population more equitably, following the state’s redistricting law governing communities of interest, Latinos would have more say in more elections. As it stands now, candidates in many of the other Congressional districts that have been gerrymandered to be mostly white don’t have to take Latino issues into consideration at all because they don’t need Latinos to get elected.
If 20 or 30 percent of their district was Latino, they would. Moreover, under Arizona’s redistricting law, if map makers weren’t handicapped with appeasing the feds by cramming Latinos into a couple of districts, all the state’s Congressional districts could be more politically balanced, rather than creating safe districts for hard right Republicans such as Rep. Trent Franks.
All Arizonans would be more fairly represented if the federal government didn’t require the marginalization of Latinos.
The devil might argue that supposedly diluting Latino voting power by spreading it out is bad and one could imagine evil map makers drawing lines that cut Latino representation by district to just a few percent. But the communities of interest provision of the state’s redistricting law should prevent that from happening.
Like it or not, we have segregated ourselves. We used to do it by force and by law but now we do it by choice or by income. The affluent suburbs are mostly white, the poorer inner cities are mostly brown and black. But that strangely stands as a defense against dividing up the Latino vote if the redistricting law is properly followed (which is why we have courts to figure that out since everyone’s ox gets gored by redistricting).
The same arguments above for Congressional districts applies for the legislative districts. County and city redistricting are not governed by the state redistricting law but they are beleaguered by Section 5. The ruling would likewise relieve them of racial districting. The most notable affect would be in Pima County where nearly all of the county’s Latinos have been crammed into districts 2 and 5, leaving districts 1 and 4 snowy white.
A more balanced division of the county’s voters might create a more balanced Board of Supervisors, but even though the Supes wouldn’t necessarily have to worry about federal preclearance, the current politics would not lend itself to changing the current districts. Racial gerrymandering assures a Democratic majority and the Democratic majority is unlikely to do anything to tip over that apple cart.
Rather than flail about and shrilly decry the SCOTUS ruling, Democrats and Latinos need to accept the ruling since chances of changing the court’s makeup in the next 10 years or more is slim. And then they to need protect the state’s redistricting law.
That law is now free to work as it was intended which is to balance the state’s politics as long as the state’s voters are balanced, which they currently are.
The history of racial voter suppression in this country is a shame on the nation. We passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to rectify it and it worked. Yet the act still acts like voting conditions in the country are as they were in 1965. The SCOTUS suggests the Congress update parts of the law that are out of date and in opposition to the Constitution.
One of the great changes since the death of Jim Crow is the greater inclusion of racial minorities into the ruling and political classes. Whites don’t dominate everything, including the courts, anymore. If Arizona were to embark on a course of voter suppression by race, that course would quickly be corrected by the courts, if not the voters. That wasn’t the case 50 years ago.
The ruling, while controversial, should work to Arizona’s benefit, not its detriment.