On Wednesday, Feb 27, the mother lode of all GOP legal voting schemes will be heard before the Supreme Court in the case of Shelby County v. Holder. This case challenges the constitutionality of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Simply put, section 5 states that due to past discriminatory voting rights issues to disenfranchise blacks, all or parts of 16 states must have any voting laws pre-approved by the Justice Department before implementing them. It applies to nine states mostly in the south and parts of 7 other states. This provision known as “pre-clearance” is the heart of the Voting Rights Act as it corrects a problem before it occurs. It applies to when states covered under Section 5 either redraw district lines, modify registration procedures or change any other practice that might disadvantage minority voters.
Shelby County, Alabama argues that section 5 is no longer needed and unconstitutional. In a recent decision, at least one justice, Clarence Thomas has said that the provision is flat out unconstitutional. So we know which way he will vote. And Chief Justice Roberts said several years ago that “things have changed in the South,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote. “Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity.
First the Supreme Court gave us Citizens United giving corporations unlimited spending to candidates saying corporations are people too. Then states enacted voter ID laws to prevent bogus voter fraud and give Mitt Romney the win. After that didn’t work, Republicans are considering changing the way states allocate votes to the electoral college—so that a loser Republican could receive votes to win the state. And now, we have the Supreme Court deciding if minorities’ voting rights will be protected.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted due to systemic discrimination preventing blacks from voting with numerous schemes and laws, such as poll tax, literacy tests and intimidation. While the exact tactics have changed, the game is still being played from shortening early voting days, voter ID laws, photo ID laws, True the Vote intimidation and a myriad of other ways.
By way of background, in 2006 Congress heard testimony on whether to re-authorize the act for another 25 years. After hearing days of testimony and 22 hearings, Congress almost voted unanimously to re-approve the Act for another 25 years. The vote was 393 – 25 in the House and unanimous with 98-0 in the Senate. Those members of Congress and the Senate who heard testimony and voted to extend section 5 of the Voting Rights Act are the same ones whose states are affected by it. Despite recent Congressional approval, Shelby County Alabama says it has been too long and poses hardships.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments at 10:00 A.M for an hour with each side allocated ½ hour unless the Justices determine to provide more time. Rallies are expected outside the court before, during and after the arguments. Make no mistake, this case is one of the most important civil rights cases before the Supreme Court in a long time. Its outcome could very well determine if we go back to the days of 50 years ago when voting in the south for blacks was a blocked obstacle course, worse than a maze to figure out.
Although Shelby County argues that with an African American president, there is not much need for the section anymore, the tactics of the GOP during the 2012 election shows why we must have Section 5 still in place. Prior to the election, Texas attempted to change its voting laws. The Justice Department did not pre-clear them due to a discriminatory effect on Hispanics. A U.S. District court upheld the decision.
Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) who knows first- hand the challenges of the south in regards to voting, recently spoke out on why it is important to uphold it. Without the section preventing a return to the old days, there will be a repeat pattern. The GOP tactics of the 2012 election were just a snap shot of what will happen if the Court does not uphold Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. And without section 5, there is no real redress after the election has occurred. That’s the importance of pre-clearance.
There is also a bail out provision where states or those portions can show they have complied with the Act may request to be exempted. Shelby County never asked for a bail out. Instead, they want the entire section 5 of the voting Rights Act of 1965 to be held unconstitutional.
Last year the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act. Let’s hope they don’t give us health care and take away voting rights this year. Rallies will take place outside the Supreme Court during the arguments. A decision is not likely for months.