Do we still need the Voting Rights Act? The Supreme Court recently announced that it would revisit the 1965 law, one of the major accomplishments of the civil rights movement. In Shelby County v. Holder, the court will review Section 5 of the Act, which requires certain states to get pre-clearance from the federal government before they change their voting laws. The states affected by Section 5 are mostly in the South.
Shelby County, Alabama wants the Court to declare Section 5 unconstitutional. They say the provision is no longer necessary, and that it infringes on state sovereignty. The federal government, on the other hand, says Section 5 prevents minorities from being disenfranchised in elections. So who is right?
The government is absolutely correct – and it has legislative intent, legal precedent, and recent history on its side.
The 2012 election provides the clearest evidence of why Section 5 is still vital today. The Department of Justice relied on it to contest early voting cutbacks in Florida, and to block voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina. These attempts at voter suppression could have resulted in thousands of Latino and African-American voters being denied their right to vote. Section 5 was also used to block Texas’ redistricting plan, which was found to undercut the voting power of Hispanics. And consider that increasing numbers of Latinos live in the Southern states under the jurisdiction of Section 5.
Opponents maintain that Section 5 is outdated, offering as proof the country’s election and re-election of its first African-American president, and the recent increase in minority voters. But having an African-American president does not establish that discrimination exists only in the past. Record numbers of minority voters turned out for President Obama despite efforts to limit turnout. Indeed, voter suppression was one of the biggest stories of the 2012 race.
Although Section 5 was originally set to expire within five years, Congress has repeatedly renewed it. In 2006, a Republican-led Congress renewed it based on 22 hearings and 15,000 pages of evidence establishing persistent racial discrimination at the polls. At the time, then-President George W. Bush signed a twenty-five year extension into law. So if the Court throws out Section 5, it will be in clear opposition to the will of the legislative branch of government.
Legal precedent supports keeping Section 5 intact. It has been upheld as constitutional before, in South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966) and Rome, Georgia v. U.S. (1980). Last year, a judge in Federal Court rejected a challenge to the measure by Shelby County, noting that Congress had found that “Forty years has not been enough time to eliminate the vestiges of discrimination.” In May, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld his ruling. The court acknowledged the burdens of federal oversight on certain states, yet concluded that they were still necessary in order to protect minority voters.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has indicated skepticism about the continued viability of Section 5. “Things have changed in the South,” he noted, in a 2009 case that touched upon a similar issue. Yes, things have changed in the South, but the Court must not overlook decades of voter disenfranchisement. Latinos, African-Americans and others know that the fight for civil rights is not over; it continues to this day. Voting rights cannot be thrown aside because Shelby County is inconvenienced by its own unfortunate legacy of discrimination.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act should be upheld as a key part of successful civil rights legislation. The lower courts were right to strike down earlier challenges against it. Section 5 safeguards the civil rights of Latinos, African-Americans, and other minorities. Most importantly, it guarantees the integrity of our electoral process – to all.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.