Steve Chapman

Political advocates often yearn for simpler times and simpler causes. Conservative hawks, nostalgic for the clarity of World War II, see every aggressive nation as Nazi Germany. Tea partiers invoke the founders as though King George III were still on his throne.

For liberals, there is no cause to match the cause of civil rights in the 1960s -- when Southern segregationists violently opposed equality for African-Americans and the federal government acted assertively in pursuit of justice. When it comes to any issue involving race, these liberals have a pronounced tendency to spy the ghost of George Wallace.

That impulse was on display Tuesday, after the Supreme Court struck down a major part of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. That provision required nine states, mostly in the South, to get federal approval before making the slightest change in election laws and procedures. The reactions made it sound as though the term "black voter" will soon be a self-contradiction.

"No one should be fooled by the naive fantasy that voting discrimination no longer exists," said Wade Henderson, head of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. The Amalgamated Transit Union said the verdict "turns the clock back to the Jim Crow era." Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said it "halts nearly 50 years of civil rights progress."

Quinn's comment was especially illuminating, though not for the reason he intended. Illinois is one of the states that the law treats as fit to exercise control over elections. But as the lawyers for Shelby County, Ala., told the Supreme Court, it was among six uncovered states that lost more voting discrimination lawsuits than five of the covered states.

The court didn't say racism and voting discrimination are things of the past. It merely said that they are not peculiar to the South, or necessarily more prevalent in the South.

Texas and South Carolina wanted to require voters to present a government-issued photo ID when they show up at the polls. Under the Voting Rights Act, they were barred from doing so. Indiana wanted to impose the same rule. It was allowed.

Was this because the requirements were radically different? No. Because there are black people in Indiana? No. Because Hoosiers get driver's licenses at birth? No.

It's because what qualifies as racial discrimination in some places does not qualify as racial discrimination there. Not that black voters have it better in Indiana. In fact, they are less likely than blacks in Texas and South Carolina to be registered and less likely to vote.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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