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Gains of Civil Rights Era Threatened as 'Voting Rights Act' Goes Before Supreme Court

Opponents challenge necessity of Section 5 despite ongoing attempts to deny voters' rights

- Lauren McCauley, staff writer

Bringing recent incidents of voter suppression and discrimination to the foreground, the US Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear arguments on a case that challenges the constitutionality of a key component of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

(Photo: AP) The case, Shelby County v. Holder, is questioning Section 5 of the seminal civil rights era law—which requires all or parts of 16 “covered” states with long histories and contemporary records of voting discrimination to get federal clearance before making any changes to their voting laws. The court will decide whether the rule is still a necessary deterrent against voter discrimination.

"Section 5," writes ProPublica in their examination of the legislation's history, "was meant to address the systemic disenfranchisement of African Americans by state lawmakers in the South since the end of Reconstruction."

However, voters' rights advocates and proponents of the law say that, based on recent elections and attempts by local governments to implement discriminatory ID laws, hour and location changes, and redistricting rules, the VRA continues to prove an essential protector of voting rights for millions of Americans.  

"The right to vote," writes civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) in a Washington Post op-ed, "is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democracy."

Refuting critics claims that Section 5 is out of date, Penda Hair, director of the Advancement Project, and president ofthe NAACP Benjamin Todd Jealous say, "The last few years leading up to the 2012 elections saw the greatest efforts to pass restrictive voting laws since the post-Reconstruction era, including limiting the type of ID that people can use, and requiring additional proof of citizenship to register and vote, all of which disproportionately impact people of color and the working poor."

ProPublica reports:

Just this past year, the provision was the reason federal judges blocked voter ID laws in both Texas and South Carolina, voided new district maps in Texas and prevented early voting reduction of hours in parts of Florida, citing a potential adverse effect on minority voters.

In the past year, the Justice Department objected to a total 16 proposed changes under Section 5, according to a DOJ official.

The challenger in this case is Shelby County, Alabama which, in 2008, redrew one of its electoral maps effectively reducing the number of black voters in that district from 70.9 percent to 29.5 percent. Utilizing Section 5, the Justice Department vetoed their proposition.

The case caught the attention of conservative advocate Edward Blum—a "one-man crusade against civil rights legislation" according to writer and professor Diane Roberts—who persuaded Shelby County to file a suit on the basis that Section 5 has outlived its validity and unfairly targets certain states.

However, according to Roberts, if there's anything recent elections have proven, it's that "Jim Crow isn't dead."

Instead, she writes, "He's just hired a good PR firm, got lawyered up, and learned to call voter suppression 'fraud prevention'."

In 2006, Congress reauthorized the VRA, including the contentious Section 5. After a rigorous round of investigations and hearings, they concluded that the rule still proved necessary, as the “vestiges of discrimination in voting continue to exist as demonstrated by second generation barriers constructed to prevent minority voters from fully participating in the electoral process.”

Despite this, just four years ago, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. raised the question of whether legislative preclearance was still a "justifiable infringement" of state sovereignty, declaring, "Things have changed in the South. [...] Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels."

Seven other justices signed Roberts' opinion with Justice Clarence Thomas going so far as to declare Section 5 "unconstitutional."

"It is ironic and almost emblematic," Lewis writes, "that the worst perpetrators are those seeking to be relieved of the responsibilities of justice. Instead of accepting the ways our society has changed and dealing with the implications of true democracy, they would rather free themselves of oversight and the obligations of equal justice."

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