Times change. And many laws that were once essential to help us progress eventually become outdated, counterproductive, and in need of revision, if not repeal.
But by then such laws have often become sacred cows, perpetuated long past their glory days by self-serving politicians, interest-group lobbies, and media nostalgia or bias. Their reach is very hard to restrain unless an unusual opportunity presents itself.
So it is with Section 5 of the iconic Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was initially set to expire in 1970. It requires eight states in the Deep South, plus Alaska and parts of seven other states, to obtain “preclearance” from the U.S. Justice Department (or a slow-moving special court) before making even the minutest change in their voting rules.
Section 5 played a critical role in ending the disenfranchisement of Southern blacks and breaking the back of American apartheid. But we live in a different America. The very racial progress that Section 5 helped accomplish has arguably made it unnecessary and certainly calls for reducing its intrusion on state powers.
Indeed, many or most of the states and localities covered by Section 5 have become as protective of voting rights as the rest of the country. And Section 2 of the act provides ample authority to deal with residual voting rights violations — which no doubt still occur — through the ordinary judicial process.
Efforts to reform Section 5 have nonetheless been beaten back by left-wing Democrats, right-wing Republicans (some of whom benefit from the racial gerrymandering it imposes, while others would prefer its outright elimination on ideological grounds), the civil rights lobby, and its allies in the news media and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.