Emily Bazelon

  • February 13, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    In a State of the Union Address largely focused on economic policy aimed at helping the middle class as opposed to measures long trumpeted by conservative lawmakers that coddle the superrich, President Obama also highlighted the unequal effects that too many state laws had on voting last year. As The New York Times recently reported, African Americans and Latinos “waited nearly twice as long to vote as whites, according to a study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute for Technology.”

    Obama called for a bipartisan commission, including his campaign lawyer Robert Bauer and Mitt Romney’s counsel Ben Ginsberg, to investigate the voting difficulties and irregularities of the 2012 election cycle.

    That’s a commendable action, but we must not forget that the nation’s strongest law to combat racial discrimination in voting remains the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and especially its major enforcement provision, Section 5. Section 5 applies to certain states and localities with deep histories of discriminating against potential voters because of their race. And in 2006, Congress developed an exhaustive record showing that racial discrimination in voting still persisted and indeed remained most invidious in those jurisdictions. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act provides citizens nationwide with the ability to challenge discriminatory practices wherever they occur.

    But Section 5 is the bulwark against those state officials bent on creating ways to keep minorities away from the polls. Indeed, the Department of Justice and several civil liberties groups relied on Section 5 to halt or blunt efforts in Texas, South Carolina and Florida (all covered by Section 5) that would have disproportionately impacted the minority vote.

    While Section 5 is integral to the Voting Rights Act, it is also despised by some state officials in the covered jurisdictions. Alabama officials are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate Section 5, arguing in part that racial discrimination in voting is largely a relic. The high court will hear oral argument in the case, Shelby County v. Holder on Feb. 27 and is expected to issue a ruling in late spring or early summer. (For more information about the Voting Rights Act and the Shelby County case see ACS’s Voting Rights Act Resource Page.)