This week the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in Shelby County v Holder. This case is an attempt to negate Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The plaintiffs claim that the provisions of Section 5 are no longer needed and therefore unconstitutional. The plaintiffs themselves are the living proof of why section 5 is still needed today; but the scary part is they just might be successful and if they are, in true Sun Tzu fashion, this battle was won before it was fought.
In 1965 Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to give the federal government oversight over the voting laws in various states or parts thereof to ensure that all Americans had access to the voting booth. Areas under the jurisdiction of Section 5 of the Act are required to get pre-clearance from the Justice Department for any changes they make to voting districts or procedures. The entire states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia; several counties in California, Florida, New York, and North Carolina along with certain municipalities in Michigan and New Hampshire are subject to Section 5’s provisions.
This specific case involves a municipality within Shelby County, Alabama. Changing demographics allowed the city of Calera to elect an African-American to its city government for the first time in 2004. Prior to the 2008 elections the city legislature redistricted to dilute the African-American vote. Despite not receiving the legally required pre-clearance they let the election go ahead with the new districts and Ernest Montgomery, the black official, lost.
As chance would have it I ran the Obama campaign in Franklin County, North Carolina in 2012. Franklin is one of the North Carolina counties subject to Section 5. There were several instances of “oversights”, (I’m going out of my way to be polite), on the part of the Franklin County Board of Elections and interestingly every one of them made it more difficult for African-American Democrats to vote.
News programs were full of coverage of multiple hour long lines to vote in 2012 in Florida. Voter suppression laws masquerading as Voter ID laws were introduced in several Republican controlled states. If viewed as legitimate attempts to stop voter fraud they were a solution in search of a problem. Voter fraud is virtually non-existent in America. If they were an attempt at voter suppression they were certainly designed to be successful. The biggest miscalculation their crafters had was to underestimate the “we shall overcome attitude” of the people they were aimed at. Their forefathers and in some cases they, themselves; had overcome too much to be stopped by some voter suppression laws; it only angered and motivated them to vote in spite of the hardships.
The last renewal of the Voting Rights Act took place in 2006. At that time the Supreme Court had signaled that it would like to see Congress adjust which areas of the county would be subject to Section 5; updating the Act to take into account demographic changes since 1965. This would entail exempting some areas currently covered under the law as well as adding some new ones. The Republican controlled Congress punted by simply renewing the Act for 25 years sans changes in geography covered. This will give pre-disposed justices an opening to say that the Act as written is out of touch and nullify or significantly weaken it.
However, if the Supreme Court were to rule in favor of Shelby County it would simply be ignoring reality. In my opinion any Justice voting to overturn Section 5 would be a candidate for a Section 8 – the military’s discharge for someone mentally unfit for service.
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