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SPOTLIGHT
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Tracking disenfranchisement will be difficult

Published on -7/1/2013, 12:00 PM

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By MARY SANCHEZ

Tribune Media Services

Time for everyone to step away from their respective ledges.

A few days have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on one of the most effective pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Some of the kneejerk liberal oratory, the gnashing of teeth, is completely out of step with reality. The court's decision does not signal a slippage to Jim Crow antics like poll taxes and hatred so violent that merely registering a black person to vote could lead to murder.

Likewise, conservatives would do well to cease gloating about the landmark ruling that nullified an important part of the act. After all, it's not like the court found that the nine states and portions of six others receiving extra scrutiny have become bastions of free and equal treatment for all voters.

In fact, records compiled for Congress the last time it renewed the Voting Rights Act in 2006 reflect many examples of disparate impacts for voters in recent years.

Clearly, a black man in the White House does not mean the nation has eradicated discriminatory problems in voting, intentional or not.

The problem now is Congress.

Congress needs to rewrite the guidelines nullified by the ruling to consider new situations across the United States. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts tried to nudge toward that goal in the ruling.

Dramatic demographic shifts necessitate it.

New populations of voters not fully considered in 1965 such as Hispanics, Asians and increasing numbers of less mobile elderly are bringing new challenges to ensuring access to the polls.

The court's 5-4 ruling in Shelby v. Holder made irrelevant a portion of the law initially intended to halt the horrific abuses of the civil rights era.

Alabama's Shelby County challenged a section of the Voting Rights Act that mandated so-called pre-clearance standards. Most of the states and some of jurisdictions covered are in the South. Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, they must first receive the federal government's permission before redrawing legislative maps, shifting polling places or enacting new rules on voter identification.

These jurisdictions must prove to the Justice Department or a panel of federal judges that planned changes will not have a discriminatory effect.

Problem was, the areas were chosen by past abuses. Too far in the past, the court decided, nullifying the formula used to determine who is covered.

The court wants Congress to readdress the formula, using more current voting patterns. Congress failed to do that the last time the Voting Rights Act was renewed.

The Justice Department can and will still pursue abuses. They'll be busy.

Accessibility to the ballot box is under assault in America.

Legislatures nationwide are passing changes to voting laws, often under the guise of stopping voter fraud.

Repeatedly, politicians pushing for the measures cannot prove fraud exists. Often, they are mislabeling database errors as fraud. Problems like two people with the same name, inaccurate data entry of addresses or birthdays. The glitches need to be eliminated; new technology can be employed.

But the goal should always be to increase access eligible voters, not making reaching the ballot box unnecessarily more difficult -- and often placing that burden on older, poorer and minority voters.

Here is the thing.

Areas affected by pre-clearance standards could have been exempted from scrutiny years ago. All they needed to do was keep a clean slate, not have any violations for 10 consecutive years. This process, called "bailout," is included in the act.

But problems continued. Most of the jurisdictions never met that mark.

No, they had to wait until a conservative-leaning court cut them some slack.

And now an ineffective Congress will make it that much more difficult to flag modern-era abuses.

Mary Sanchez is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. msanchez@kcstar.com

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