(The Root) — If ever there were a reason to be grateful that the Voting Rights Act is still in effect, it's the shenanigans that have been taking place in Virginia's Republican-controlled state Senate. What GOP legislators have been trying to do there gives wacko racist reactionaries a bad name. If the most important provision in the act, which targets states that historically discriminated, were to be invalidated — as may happen this summer as a result of a case that will be argued before the Supreme Court in February — these rascals would have a far better chance of getting away with their dastardly deeds.
Even the timing of the stunt underscores the extent to which Virginia Republicans cannot be trusted. They picked Jan. 21 — which happened to be not only the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday but also the date of Barack Obama's second inaugural — to ram through a redistricting plan that would guarantee GOP control of the 40-member body.
It's no coincidence that the vote was taken while Henry Marsh, one of the state's five black senators, was in Washington for the inaugural ceremony. His absence gave the Republicans a temporary 20-19 majority in the evenly divided upper house of the legislature, and they took full advantage of it.
Hang on; this gets complicated. The new map would abolish the seat held by a white Democrat and replace it with a new majority-black district on the state's south side. That sounds good, but it's really another case of political three-card monte. The feat would be accomplished by consolidating black voters (who, as in other states, are mostly Democratic) into the new district, leaving more concentrated, predominantly white GOP voting blocs in other jurisdictions.
The end result, according to an analysis by respected political blogger Ben Trippett, would be the creation of a new 27-13 Republican state Senate majority. That, combined with the GOP's big advantage in the heavily gerrymandered House of Delegates, would allow Republicans to override any veto that a future Democratic governor of Virginia might issue.
Amazingly, some black members of the lower house of the legislature may actually fall for the okey-doke. One of them, Delegate Rosalyn R. Dance of Petersburg, told the Washington Post, "It's going to be hard for us [to vote against the plan] as African Americans because they create a minority seat."
To which state Sen. L. Louise Lucas of Portsmith retorted, "I'm hot as a pot of fish grease about this. I'm hoping that they're not going to be so naive as to bite that bait." The matter could come to a head next Wednesday, when the House of Delegates is set to vote on the plan.
It gets worse. In addition to rigging the state Senate, some Republicans are pushing a change in the way Virginia's electoral votes are awarded in presidential elections. Instead of delivering all 13 electoral votes to the candidate who finishes first in the popular vote, as the current winner-take-all system requires, they would award one vote to the victor in each congressional district in the state and two votes to the statewide winner.
Eight of Virginia's 11 congressional seats are GOP-controlled. Mitt Romney outpolled Obama in seven of those jurisdictions. Thus, if the scheme had been in effect during last November's elections, Romney would have wound up with nine of Virginia's electoral votes and Obama with only four, even though Obama carried the state by a convincing 51 percent-to-47 percent margin.
That attempt to undermine the principles of one person, one vote and majority rule was so blatant that even many Republicans recoiled, and the proposal was allowed to quietly die in committee. But rest assured that the diehard Republicans will resurrect it sooner or later.
Similar election-rigging schemes have been proposed in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — all swing states controlled by Republican governors and state legislatures that Obama carried in November. According to political scientist Alan I. Abramowitz, had this scheme been used in those five states plus Virginia in 2012, "instead of Obama winning all of their 106 electoral votes, it appears that Romney would have won 61 electoral votes to only 45 for Obama." That would have shaved Obama's 332-206 electoral-vote margin to a razor-thin 271-267.
Back to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which was designed to prevent just the sort of tomfoolery now taking place in Virginia: It requires nine Southern states and some parts of other states with long histories of discriminating against minority voters to get approval from either the Justice Department or a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., before making any changes in their electoral procedures. They have to prove that changes — from as small as moving a polling place to as large as a new redistricting plan — will not make minority voters worse off.
Over the years, Section 5 has been used to nullify all sorts of nefarious attempts to water down the power of minority votes. Most recently it was used to overturn a host of rigid voter-ID laws designed to suppress the minority vote last November. Attorney General Eric Holder calls it "our nation's most important civil rights statute."
Obviously it's still very much needed. But there's a good chance that the right-wing bloc on the Supreme Court will strike down the provision this summer, when it rules in the case of Shelby County v. Holder.
Here again, it gets complicated. One of the key arguments made by opponents of Section 5 is that it is based on outmoded historical data that go back to the days of legal segregation and it allows jurisdictions not under its sway to get away with much worse electoral practices than are permitted in jurisdictions where the law still applies.
They have a point. Though Section 5 could be used to stop dead in their tracks the revolting modifications being considered in Virginia, it can do nothing to halt the equally repulsive new procedures in states where the provision does not apply. Kansas, for example, is free to enact tough voter-ID laws that are not permissible in Texas.
But that's really more an argument for why we need to do a better job protecting the rights of voters in states like Kansas than it is for making it harder to protect the rights of voters in states like Virginia. We still need Section 5 and the rest of the Voting Rights Act.
The U.S. has come a long, long way since the days when blacks were denied the vote and, as a consequence, relegated to second-class citizenship. But as the retrograde maneuvering in Virginia's legislature makes clear, we still have a long way to go.
Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va., and a contributing editor for The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.