In 2006, Congress voted overwhelmingly to reauthorize Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act for another twenty-five years. The vote was 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate. Every top Republican supported the bill. “The Voting Rights Act must continue to exist,” said House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, “and exist in its current form.” Civil rights leaders, including Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson, flanked George W. Bush at the signing ceremony.
Yet three days after the 2012 election, in which voter suppression played a starring role, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a conservative challenge to the constitutionality of Section 5, which compels parts or all of sixteen states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to clear election-related changes with the federal government. The challenge originates in Shelby County, Alabama, and is being supported by Republican attorneys general in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas. Ed Blum, director of the Project on Fair Representation, which is funding the lawsuit, told The New York Times that Section 5 “is stuck in a Jim Crow-era time warp.”
But past remains present to a disturbing degree in the South. It turns out that states and counties with a history of voting discrimination in 1964 are still trying to suppress the growing minority vote today. Consider, for example, that eight of eleven states in the former Confederacy passed new voting restrictions since the 2010 election. These included laws requiring government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot (Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas), proof of citizenship to register to vote (Alabama and Tennessee), cutbacks to early voting (Florida, Georgia and Tennessee) and disenfranchising of ex-felons (Florida). All of these changes make it harder for minority voters to participate in the political process.
Section 5, which Attorney General Eric Holder has called the “keystone of our voting rights,” can’t stop all of these ills, but it remains the most effective tool the federal government has to object to discriminatory voting changes in the South. “The record compiled by Congress demonstrates that, without the continuation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protections, racial and language minority citizens will be deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote, or will have their votes diluted, undermining the significant gains made by minorities in the last 40 years,” the Department of Justice argued in a recent court filing.
This election cycle, DOJ opposed voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina, early voting cutbacks in Florida, and redistricting maps in Texas under Section 5. The federal courts in Washington sided with DOJ in three of four cases, and also blocked South Carolina’s voter ID law for 2012.
Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, reviews the recent court decisions: