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Supreme Court hears arguments on Voting Rights Act

4th March 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Michael Patrick Welch
Contributing Writer

On Wednesday February 27, the United States Supreme Court began hearing the case of Shelby County v. Holder, a lawsuit claiming that Section 5 of the Voting Rights act is unconstitutional. For the purpose of curbing racially motivated voter discrimination, Section 5 currently disallows select states, counties and townships from changing any aspect of their voting procedures without first gaining the approval of either the attorney general or a three-judge Federal District Court.

Though a final decision in the case could be months away, the SCOTUS blog reported that last week’s oral argument portion of the proceedings foreshadowed the demise of Section 5, and predicted a five-to-four vote along partisan lines.

Designed to stop discrimination before it occurs, Section 5’s success is thus measured in what has not occurred—making it easy for some to claim that the law has worked, and is no longer needed. Last week, the Supreme Court’s blog quoted Justice Elena Kagan as having boiled the Shelby case down to a single question: “Who gets to decide when the problem of racial discrimination in voting is solved?”

The Voting Rights Act was first passed after “Bloody Sunday” in 1965, when dozens of voting rights protesters were beaten by police officers and hospitalized while attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. First authorized as a five-year-long temporary legislation in 1965, the Voting Rights Act has been upheld eight times from 1965 to 2012, and in 2006 was reauthorized for another 25 years. The law is widely considered one of the most successful in civil rights history.

A state’s eligibility for Section 5 is determined by a formula outlined in Section 4. The formula’s first part takes into account whether the state or political subdivision in question has a history of attempting to restrict minorities’ ability to register and vote. The Director of the Census must then also determine whether at least 50 percent of eligible voters are registered, and whether at least 50 percent of voting-age citizens voted in the last presidential election.

For now, Section 5 limits Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, plus select counties in California, Florida, New York and North Carolina and South Dakota, and townships in both Michigan and New Hampshire.

Despite Section 5, in 2008 the city of Calera in Shelby County independently pulled a redistricting maneuver that broke up the county’s only majority-Black district. The City Council election that followed resulted in the defeat of Ernest Montgomery, the Council’s only African American. A challenge from the Department of Justice helped Montgomery retain his seat. It was then that Shelby filed its suit.

Jurisdictions that have complied with the Voting Rights Act for 10 years are eligible to become exempt from Section 5. Since 2009, all 127 jurisdictions that have applied to leave Section 5 coverage have been approved. But because of 2008’s uncleared redistricting, Shelby is ineligible for a bailout. So instead, Shelby County is seeking to disprove the law’s constitutionality which, if accomplished, would wipe it from the books completely, and free every jurisdiction over which it presides.

The election of the first African American to the White House in 2008 sent the opposition scrambling for ways to lower minority turnout at the polls. Leading up to the 2012 election, several jurisdictions enacted or attempted to enact new restrictive voter ID laws, redistrict, and make last-minute changes to voting locations and hours. Attorney General Eric Holder has been quoted as saying that over the past two years, at least 10 lawsuits have been filed arguing against Section 5; more cases than in any period since it was instituted.

Despite the media’s bleak assessment of yesterday’s trial, Scott Simpson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights says, “We are still confident about our argument. The facts haven’t changed at all and we have good legal precedent. For Alabama to decide they want to set the curve for the nation, it just doesn’t make sense at all.”

This article originally published in the March 4, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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