The Arizona Republic
Aug. 9, 2006

Author: Robert Robb

The Voting Rights Act is widely thought to prohibit the various techniques that some states, mostly southern ones, employed to prevent minorities, principally Blacks, from voting.

In fact, as enacted in 1965, that was its intention, and it succeeded in substantially broadening the franchise.

That national commitment to eliminate barriers to voting remains, and hence the recent extension of the act for another 25 years was generally celebrated and considered a good thing.

However, the primary effect of the act has long since ceased to be prohibiting barriers to voting. Instead, it has become a vehicle principally for the drawing of race-conscious political boundaries.

Under the act as interpreted and applied, the first step in drawing political boundaries in many states is to create districts in which minorities predominate. All other traditional redistricting considerations are subservient to that one.

The premise behind that requirement is invidious: that race should be the primary consideration in political representation.

A subsidiary assumption is that, for minorities, only a member of their own race can or should represent them.

The extent of the invidiousness was demonstrated in the recent Texas redistricting case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court basically said that the wrong Latino was representing a Latino congressional district and that upscale Latinos really didn't count in the Voting Rights Act racial calculations.

And that is not a bunch of activist judges making it up. In the renewal of the act, Congress made it clear that it objected to the few restraints the court has imposed on race-conscious districting.

Arizona has been particularly affected by the act. It is one of 16 states whose voting procedures must be pre-approved by the federal Department of Justice.

These states are often described as having had a history of voting discrimination. In Arizona's case, that wasn't the offense. What got Arizona on the list, believe it or not, was not providing bilingual ballots before it was a federal requirement to do so.

This race-conscious districting has had a large political effect, in Arizona and elsewhere. Since, at present, minorities tend to affiliate with the Democratic Party, packing them into districts where they predominate dilutes the Democratic numbers available for other districts.

That reduces political competitiveness generally and improves the chances of Republicans in the few competitive districts that can be created.

Even though the act wasn't due to expire until next year, the GOP congressional leadership was anxious to renew it this year and without substantive reform. After all, why get accused of racism for trying to change something from which you are politically benefiting?

Republican backbenchers did kick up a bit of a ruckus. After all, Republicans are supposed to be opposed to race-conscious policies. And the preclearance requirement is now patently unfair to those jurisdictions subject to it.

Yet, in the final analysis, the rumblings came to naught. The act was renewed and congressional support for race-conscious districting made even more explicit. Substantive amendments failed.

Arizona's congressional delegation showed more willingness to reform than most.

An amendment to limit the reauthorization to 10 years rather than 25 years was supported by Republican congressmen Jeff Flake, Trent Franks, J.D.
Hayworth, Jim Kolbe and John Shadegg.

An amendment to make the preclearance triggers based upon more current behavior was supported by the same cast.

An amendment to eliminate the bilingual ballot requirement was supported by only Franks and Hayworth -- even though naturalized citizens are supposed to demonstrate English literacy and native-born Latinos, even those with parents who don't speak English, are almost universally English-capable.

Republican Rick Renzi and Arizona's two Democratic congressmen, Raul Grijalva and Ed Pastor, opposed all Voting Rights Act reforms.

In the final analysis, only Franks and Shadegg joined 31other Republicans in voting against renewal of the act. Even Flake, renowned for lone stands on behalf of principle, flinched from the political totem of race and voting.

The Senate simply ratified the House action without even considering amendments. Both Arizona senators, Republicans John McCain and Jon Kyl, voted in favor of renewal.

Given the politics, Voting Rights Act reform undoubtedly had to be led by Democrats, who clearly prefer to play race politics, even if they are ultimately the victims of it.

And now the opportunity is lost.

In a partial dissent in the Texas redistricting case, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: "It is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race."

That sordidness is well on its way to becoming a permanent feature of American political life.