How a true democracy operates

Published 12:00 pm Friday, August 9, 2013

Cokie’s mother, Lindy Claiborne Boggs, was born on a plantation in the segregated south before women could vote. When she died last week at 97, Barack and Michelle Obama celebrated “her legacy as a champion of women’s and civil rights [that] will continue to inspire generations to come.”

Protecting the right to vote was the central principle of Lindy’s political career. During the Louisiana governor’s race of 1939, she organized a group of women to prevent a corrupt machine from stealing the election. One of her cohorts stayed through the night “in a rough waterfront precinct” guarding a ballot box. Another was “pasted” by a rival and wound up with “a black eye and a swollen lip,” Lindy wrote in her memoir, “Washington Through a Purple Veil.”

Lindy eventually served 18 years in Congress, succeeding her husband Hale, who was killed in a plane crash in 1972. Hale risked his career to support the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and a cross was later burned on their lawn in New Orleans to protest his vote.

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“Hale and I strongly believed that the freedom to register and to vote were inherent rights of all citizens of the United States, and that only through the exercise of those rights could true democracy operate,” Lindy wrote.

Maw Maw -— as she was known to the family — was right as usual. That’s why we agree so strongly with Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to use the full weight of the Justice Department to salvage the law that Hale supported at such cost 48 years ago.

That law created a system under which certain jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination — nine states and parts of six others — were required to “pre-clear” any changes in election law with federal judges or the Justice Department. In June, the Supreme Court struck down that provision, saying the formula that defined the states covered by the law was outdated and unfair.

But the court did not touch the law’s basic concept: The federal government has the right to oversee local election rules. It also left intact a section under which the Justice Department can challenge specific rules that are intentionally discriminatory.

That’s exactly what Holder is doing, charging Texas with two counts of bias: an election map that diminishes the role of racial minorities, and a law that makes it harder for poorer and less-educated citizens to register and vote.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry railed against Holder’s action, calling it an “end run around the Supreme Court” that shows “utter contempt” for the Constitution. But Perry has it exactly wrong. It’s the attorney general who is following the law and the governor who is showing “utter contempt” for the most basic constitutional right.

The real motive behind the actions in Texas is obvious. Sponsors say they are trying to reduce election fraud, but every independent study shows that deliberate voter misconduct is extremely rare.

The GOP is facing what Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham calls a “demographic death spiral” — a rising flood of nonwhite voters who could turn large sections of the political map from red to blue. Instead of courting those voters, Republicans are trying to reduce their potential impact.

The Texas example is hardly isolated. In about a dozen states last year, Republican-controlled legislatures passed restrictive laws with one purpose: to limit the influence of voting groups that are likely to support Democrats. In one indiscreet but invaluable moment, a Pennsylvania legislator said out loud what everyone knew to be true: the laws had a purely partisan goal, to “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” (He lost anyway.)

Not only did Hale support the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he spoke for it on the House floor. In the most enduring speech of his long career, he said: “I wish I could stand here as a man who loves my state, born and reared in the South, who has spent every year of his life in Louisiana since he was 5 years old, and say there has not been discrimination … but unfortunately, it is not so.”

Things are much better today — thugs don’t stuff ballot boxes or punch out women who try to stop them — but Hale’s warning remains valid. Discrimination still exists, and the recent efforts in Texas and other states are conclusive proof. The Voting Rights Act is weaker but still standing, and the administration is right to use every power it has left to protect the essence of “true democracy.”

(Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at