On Thursday, the Department of Justice renewed its fight against discriminatory voting laws when it announced its intent to file a lawsuit against the state of Texas seeking to block the implementation of SB 14, the state's voter photo ID law. The fight over voter protections has grown particularly intense since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act in June, but it is not the only point of contention between individual states and the federal government. In fact, today's announcement simply further illustrates that the overarching dispute between the supremacy of state vs. federal authority is alive and well, and not necessarily to our benefit.
In its announcement, the Justice Department alleges that SB 14 stands in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, as well as aspects of both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The department also claims a grievance against Texas's 2011 redistricting plans, which it asserts "were adopted with the purpose of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group …" and intends to file a lawsuit requiring a pre-clearance process.
Until it was struck down, pre-clearance by the federal government of any changes to voting laws was a tenet of the Voting Rights Act. Before the Voting Rights Act existed, states were free to create laws which systematically challenged the enfranchisement of non-whites in America. That's why there is a genuine concern that modern day restrictive voting legislation is signaling a return to that approach, and the federal government is right in using whatever means it has available to redress the issue.
The identification requirements of Texas's law, however, are actually in line with its requirements to obtain a driver's license. While some of the necessary documents, such as a passport or birth certificate, may not be easy for low-income citizens or the elderly to obtain, on the whole it seems a bit dubious to claim that this law is as heinous as the literacy tests used to restrict the black vote in the South after the Civil War.
I'm not saying that I agree with the disenfranchisement that this law could cause; on the contrary, I believe that government has a responsibility to us, its citizens, to make sure that the policies that govern this country are unequivocally fair and unbiased. However, that our governments, both state and federal, have a rather selective memory when it comes to the meaning of discrimination, and continuing the feud over voting rights is less about protecting voters and more about the requisitioning of authority.
Take for example marijuana legalization. It is listed as a Schedule I controlled substance under the federal government’s Controlled Substances Act, and since the outset of the War on Drugs in the 1970s, the federal government's position on the drug has not changed. Despite the fact that the costs of prohibition are enormous, and that the majority of Americans actually support its legalization, the federal government has yet to reevaluate its position on marijuana. Instead, state governments have taken the lead and chosen to decriminalize marijuana usage, legalize medical marijuana, and in two states, even legalize recreational usage outright.
So far, this has resulted in a muddy situation wherein people who are legally allowed to use the drug under state law can still be persecuted under federal law. Instead of listening to the public voice on the matter, and allowing for the provision of useful medicine to people who need it, the consumption of a substance by responsible adults in a similar fashion to alcohol and tobacco, and the address of excessive spending and injustice in the legal system, the focus remains on the federal government's use of power to prevent all use of this drug. Individual states are making efforts to usurp this power and claim the final say. There have yet to be any real efforts to reconcile both state and federal law with the desires of Americans.
The overreach of governmental authority isn't just perpetrated by the federal government, or by states. Rather, it extends in both directions, and has tangible consequences on the lives of American citizens. Issues such as civil rights, religion, immigration, abortion, and drug legalization affect all of us, no matter where your allegiance lays. What some consider civil liberties, others might consider civil oppressions, but what matters here is what we believe, and as a whole how we decide to collectively address these issues. The trouble is that instead of working together to address why these issues are important to us, our state and federal governments all too often take the opportunity to quarrel over who gets to tell us what to do instead.