Has the section of the Voting Rights Act that requires some southern states to submit changes in their voting laws to the Justice Department for approval outlived its usefulness?
That's a question the Supreme Court will get to decide. Later this month, oral arguments will be heard in the case of Shelby County vs. Holder. At issue: What purpose does Sction 5 of the Voting Rights Act serve in an era where a black man has been twice elected president?
New York Times:
Critics of the Section 5 preclearance requirement call it an unwarranted and discriminatory federal intrusion on state sovereignty and a badge of shame for the affected jurisdictions that is no longer justified.
But Mr. Anderson said he welcomed the process, to a point. "I think it plays a very valuable role, and I think we need it," he said. "Personally, I think we need it nationwide."
The problem, he said, is that the provision applies in only some parts of the country. "I think it's discriminatory because it picks on us Southerners," he said.
Congress has repeatedly renewed the law, and for a while it used fresher data with each renewal. But when Congress renewed the law for 25 years in 2006, it made no changes to the list of jurisdictions covered by Section 5 and used data from the 1972 election as a baseline.
The law applies to nine states - Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia - and to scores of counties and municipalities in other states.
Should the Supreme Court rule that Congress was not entitled to rely on old data to decide which jurisdictions should be covered, lawmakers could in theory re-enact the law using more current information. In practice, a decision striking down the coverage formula would probably amount to the end of the preclearance requirement.
In the rest of the country, objections to changes in how elections are run take the usual course, with after-the-fact lawsuits under another part of the law. "In many places," said Debo P. Adegbile, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, "the case-by-case method of vindicating voting rights for minority citizens was not up to task."
Section 5, he said, "shines daylight on the dark rooms where these political redistricting decisions are happening" and "it makes sure you're dealing the cards off the top of the deck."
Many of these jurisdictions that required poll taxes and citizenship tests for black voters prior to the Voting Rights Act are now run by blacks. This speaks not only to the success of the Act, but also to its obsolescence.
Also, Eric Holder's Justice Department has turned a blind eye to violations of the law when the perpetrators are black. This uneven enforcement of the law makes a mockery of the Act's intent and raises questions about the partisan nature of the AG's Justice Department.
It would be a surprise if the Supreme Court overturned Section 5. But the very notion of challenging the Act shows how far we have come in the battle to grant all Americans equal access to the vote.