Civil Rights Leader Says Forces Still Trampling Voting Rights

February 25, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

One of the themes running through our blog symposium on the constitutional challenge to the Voting Rights Act’s integral enforcement provision, Section 5, centers on the fallacious claim that racial discrimination in voting has largely been eradicated so it’s time to significantly scale back one of the nation’s greatest civil rights laws.

For example, West Virginia University College of Law Professor Atiba Ellis writes that it’s an “appealing” but false premise that racial discrimination is a “relic. Or as New York Law School Professor Deborah Archer notes in her post, the Voting Rights Act has helped stop very recent attempts in the states and towns covered by Section 5, mostly in the South, to implement schemes to suppress the minority vote. Archer concluded by citing Civil Rights hero U.S. Congressman John Lewis who has warned that history teaches us that “popular rights and democratic rights can be reversed ….”

Rep. Lewis (D-Ga.) in a Feb. 24 column for The Washington Post provides some context of his involvement in “Bloody Sunday,” where he and many other peaceful protesters were brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers. The marchers from Selma to Montgomery, Lewis noted, were taking action to highlight the need for voting rights protections in the state. The brutish actions of Alabama officers against the protesters certainly helped grab the nation’s attention and not long thereafter President Lyndon Johnson pushed for a voting rights measure, which would eventually become law.

Lewis (pictured) says it is fantastical to believe that all is well in the jurisdictions covered by Section 5. (Those jurisdictions must get “preclearance” from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C. for any changes to their voting laws and procedures. See the ACS Voting Rights Resource Page, for more information about the law and the case challenging it, Shelby County v. Holder.)

The congressman notes that a voluminous record replete with evidence of ongoing and intense efforts to suppress the minority vote in the covered states and towns was amassed by Congress in 2006 when it reauthorized the law. And he notes recent efforts – 2008 in Alabama and 2010 in Texas – by some of the covered jurisdictions to keep African Americans and Latinos from voting.

“Evidence proves there are forces in this country that willfully and intentionally trample on the voting rights of millions Americans,” Lewis wrote. “That is why every president and every Congress, regardless of politics or party, has reauthorized Section. 5.”

Armand Derfner, an attorney who has defended voters in the covered jurisdictions, such as South Carolina, has also urged the Supreme Court to leave the Voting Rights Act intact. During a recent ACS panel discussion on Shelby County,” Derfner said the job of Congress to combat racial discrimination in voting, via the Fifteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, is hardly finished.

“Did Congress have the power to do only half the job,” Derfner asked.