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NAACP Head: Voting Rights Act Ruling 'Takes Us Way Backwards'


NAACP President Ben Jealous called today's decision outrageous, and he joins us now from Aspen, Colorado. Thank you for joining us today.


SIEGEL: The court wrote today that the section of the Voting Rights Act it overturned made sense in the '60s but - and I'm quoting here - nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically, largely because of the Voting Rights Act. Voter turnout and registration rates in covered jurisdictions now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare, and minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels. What's wrong with that description of how things have changed?

JEALOUS: Well, you know, the South has changed a lot, and the country has changed a lot. But Shelby County hasn't changed. Kilmichael, Mississippi, certainly hadn't changed when they cancelled an election in 2001 because they realized they were going to have a black majority for the first time.

So the reality is is that this was made for specific instances that continue to haunt us, that continue to happen. We've had to use Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in multiple states just in the past year.

SIEGEL: But, for example, the court includes a chart of the disparities in voter turnout between whites and blacks in Southern states, and the most extreme change is in Mississippi. In 1964, 69.9 percent of whites voted, 6.7 percent of blacks. In 2004, 72.3 percent of whites voted, 76.1 percent of blacks voted. Why should Mississippi bear a special burden that a Northern state, which might have far worse numbers for black voting and far greater disparities, doesn't have to share that burden?

JEALOUS: Well, you know, as was made clear at the Supreme Court, that's really not the issue here. I mean, Congress has the power to expand this. Well, and quite frankly, we would have been very happy for Congress to expand the formula to pull in Ohio, for instance.

And similarly, Congress and the courts have the power to let states out of it one by one, let counties out of it. But those counties have to prove that for the past 10 years they haven't had any incidents of racially motivated attempts to change the rules, to make it harder for minorities to vote.

Mississippi simply can't show that. Alabama can't show that. Shelby, certainly, can't show that. You're talking about an area where they had in the past 200 years two black city councilmen. And they changed the district to reduce it from 70-something percent black to 27 percent black to make sure there would not be one again.

And so, you know, that's what we're dealing with here is that we've had some congressional obstructionists who have kept this from being expanded, who are now being rewarded by the court literally lifting the lid off of racially motivated voter suppression efforts.

SIEGEL: But was it an act of congressional obstructionism to extend the Voting Rights Act without reviewing the list of places under its jurisdiction by near unanimous margins in the Congress? That doesn't sound obstructionist.

JEALOUS: Where the obstructionism came in was not updating the formula after the last decision. You know, where the obstructionism came in is people, you know, making deals to make sure that senator so-and-so's state doesn't get included.

And in that instance, what the court should be saying is, look, we can show you stat after stat why it's totally justified for Mississippi, for Alabama, for counties in Florida, for counties in New York. But we can also show you that it needs to be expanded, so let's go ahead and expand it. Let's not wipe it away from - for Mississippi. Again, if there had been no incidents in the last 10 years, the state could have opted out of the formula. That didn't happen because Mississippi still has big problems.

SIEGEL: Where do you go from here? Is there even a possibility of getting a new law passed on the Hill that might satisfy the objections raised by the court?

JEALOUS: Where we must go from here is to really push for a bipartisan agreement to continue to protect citizens from racially motivated attacks on their right to vote.

We understand that our government needs the power to preempt localities and states who are clearly up to racially motivated mischief, trying to block entire groups or parts of groups from the polls. And if that means we need to have this power in every state, so be it. If that means we have to expand the formula, so be it. But the court should have taken the first principle of do no harm. Today, the Supreme Court did great harm. This is a radical decision that takes us way backwards.

SIEGEL: Ben Jealous, thank you very much for talking with us about today's ruling.

JEALOUS: Appreciate you. Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: NAACP President Ben Jealous speaking to us from Aspen, Colorado.



You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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