A Resounding Call to Save the Voting Rights Act

January 31, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

Alabama officials seeking to gut the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 claim racial discrimination in voting is no longer a problem in their state. Specifically officials in Shelby County, Ala., a largely white county, are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to find Section 5, the law’s major enforcement provision, unconstitutional.

The NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund (LDF), representing voters in Alabama, is waging a vigorous defense of what many consider one of the nation’s most important and effective civil rights law. In its recently filed brief, the group urges the high court to uphold Section of 5 arguing that “racial discrimination in voting is ‘not ancient history.’” The Court will hear oral argument in Shelby County v. Holder on Feb. 27.  

Section 5 requires certain states and localities, mostly in the South, with long histories of racial discrimination in voting to obtain “preclearance” from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C. for changes to elections procedures. LDF, in its brief, says Section 5 “remains essential to safeguard our democracy from racial discrimination. The record documents hundreds of examples of persistent unconstitutional efforts by covered States and localities to deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, including widespread efforts to circumvent remedies imposed for prior VRA violations, which were only blocked by Section 5.” (Click picture to enlarge to show covered jurisdictions of Section 5.)

Earlier this month, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange filed a brief in the Shelby County case supporting the County officials. The state still grapples with “race relations issues, but they are the same kind of issues every state currently is endeavoring to solve,” Strange argues in his brief.

LDF’s brief states there is ample evidence “of ongoing voting discrimination in Alabama specifically, and the covered jurisdictions generally, exceeds, by many orders of magnitude, that in the non-covered jurisdictions. Shelby County studiously avoids this evidence; instead, it selectively points to individual jurisdictions outside of Alabama that it asserts should not be covered.”

The LDF brief continues:

At its core, Shelby County’s attack rests on the premise that, in reauthorizing Section 5, Congress presumed racial animus in voting persists even though it ‘has been hibernating for two generations.’ The record is to the contrary. It reveals that, notwithstanding undeniable progress, striking voting discrimination continues and is concentrated in covered jurisdictions.

Opponents of Section 5 not only argue that racial discrimination in voting is no longer unique to the covered jurisdictions; they argue it exceeds Congress’s authority to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments. (The 14th amendment protects liberty and equality and the 15th Amendment bars the states from denying persons the right to vote because of race.)

The LDF brief notes that in 2006 when Congress overwhelmingly reauthorized Section 5 the voluminous record lawmakers had constructed revealed that voting discrimination persisted in the covered jurisdictions. The group concludes that while the “VRA reauthorization record contains evidence of undeniable progress” it also clearly “documents persistent and adaptive voting discrimination, which remains concentrated in the certain parts of the country.”

Congress has the constitutional power to enforce the 14th and 15th amendments and as long as racial discrimination in voting persists in the South, the Supreme Court should show judicial restraint and let the legislative branch do its job.

Visit the ACS Voting Rights Resources page for more materials and information about the case and overall issue.