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In its most infamous decision, the Dred Scott case of 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court remarked that Blacks “had no rights which the white man is bound to respect.”

Today, America wonders whether Blacks — and other minorities — have any voting rights that the court’s present majority is bound to respect.

On July 1 the court upheld, 6-3, two features of Arizona law that have been proven to have disparate effects on Black, Hispanic and Native American voters in that state. One generally forbids anyone but a letter carrier, election official or close relative to obtain or deliver absentee ballots for anyone else. The other voids all ballots cast in the wrong precinct, even for statewide or national office. Florida law is similarly outdated with regard to wrong-precinct ballots and nearly as strict on who may handle ballots for others.

It appears the court is bent on eviscerating the Voting Rights Act, one of the nation’s most necessary laws, section by section.

Until eight years ago, the law would have enabled the Justice Department to block those changes. The preclearance provisions in sections two and four applied to states or places like Arizona with histories of discrimination against minorities. Most were in the South or West, including parts of Florida, although some were localities in California and New York.

But in 2013, the court eliminated preclearance by holding 5-4 that the key definitions were outdated. A flurry of ID requirements and other voter suppression measures ensued, including a North Carolina law that a federal court found to target Blacks “with almost surgical precision.”

Citizens could still sue to enforce the Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice John Roberts promised, because Section 2, allowing those after-the-fact lawsuits, remained in force. It would be enough to prove discriminatory results, whether or not there was intent.

But lawsuits are a slower and less certain remedy, and anyway, it’s a moot point now. By an even larger majority, 6-3 this time, the July 1 decision set a precedent for allowing discriminatory effects despite Section 2 so long as they are “small.” Moreover, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, Arizona makes it “quite easy” to vote by mail or at an early voting location, as well as on Election Day. Even if not everyone is able to use those methods, everyone has the same opportunity, he wrote, rationalizing that “every voting rule imposes a burden of some sort.”

That was as rife with cynicism and hypocrisy as Anatole France’s famous comment in 1894 that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Evidence before lower courts showed that roughly 1% of the votes from Hispanics, Blacks and Native Americans in Arizona are discarded for being cast in the wrong precinct — a rate twice as high as among nonminorities. All told, nearly 40,000 ballots were discarded for that reason. Arizona far exceeds other states in that respect. But to Alito and his accomplices, it is no big deal because the “racial disparity … is small in absolute terms.”

To deny even one person’s right to vote is to repudiate the Declaration of Independence, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act itself, which was inspired by the “Bloody Sunday” police riot at Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. Dozens of peaceful marchers were injured seriously. March leader John Lewis, a future congressman, had a fractured skull.

“If a single statute represents the best of America, it is the Voting Rights Act,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in dissent for herself and Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. But it also “reminds us of the worst of America,” she said, because it remains so necessary. Writing at length on the history of voting discrimination and of the events of Bloody Sunday, Kagan accurately remarked, “Rarely has a statute required so much sacrifice to ensure its passage.”

She correctly described the outcome as “tragic” because the majority had effectively rewritten the law. “Efforts to suppress the minority vote continue … too many states and localities are restricting access to voting that will predictably deprive members of minority groups of equal access to the ballot box.”

As of July 1, those states can count on a reactionary majority of the Supreme Court to look the other way. It has become, in practice, the judicial arm of a reactionary Republican Party that has staked its future on suppressing minority votes.

Dissents, it is said, are usually written for history. In this one, Kagan has rung a fire bell that Congress must answer — with repeal or suspension of the filibuster if necessary. Or else, we have not come as far as we’d like to think from Bloody Sunday.

— South Florida Sun Sentinel

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