By Dr. Greg Rabidoux
Speaking before a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965, LBJ urged support for the Voting Rights Act (VRA). He implored all members to get behind it or risk being on the wrong side of history. He asserted that “Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination. No law…can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it.”
That was then, and Justice Clarence Thomas (among others) and his assertion that the time for the Voting Rights Act has indeed come and gone, is now.
But before we throw dirt on the VRA once and for all, a bit of context is in order.
With the current redistricting cycle full steam ahead, the VRA becomes controlling when plaintiffs seek to challenge newly drawn maps of legislative districts with sections (2) and (5) being invoked. Section 2 prohibits any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice or procedure” being imposed or applied to any State or political subdivision” that would “deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color” while Section (5) requires a DOJ or US District Court of DC “pre-clearance” when seeking to administer any voting qualification, procedure, standard, practice or procedure “different from that in force or effect November 1, 1964.”
Ever since Allen v State Board of Elections (1969) the VRA (sections 2 and 5) have been the “go to” weapon in any savvy plaintiff’s arsenal to attack partisan maps that target minority representation and political voting power for dilution. But under the Roberts Court, those days may be fast coming to a halt.
Currently, there are two cases that especially merit our close watch. Shelby County, Alabama v Holder (2010) is challenging the constitutionality of section 5. They argue that the VRA is a relic of the past and its intent to “enforce the 15th Amendment by appropriate legislation” is as outdated as hula contests and hoop skirts.