Groups rallied outside the Supreme Court in support of the Voting Rights Act. (Photo/Getty Images )

Heated debate on the Voting Rights Act inside and outside the Supreme Court

Before arguments even began inside the Supreme Court today, a group of Latino legislators and civil rights advocates held a rally where they forcefully argued for the need to preserve the Voting Rights Act.

“We are witnessing unprecedented attacks on the right to vote and now more than ever, we must also fight to maintain its legacy and integrity,” said Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair and Texas Democratic Congressman Rubén Hinojosa.  “The fact that we are contending with modern-day attempts to disenfranchise minorities speaks to the critical importance of the Voting Rights Act as a safeguard,” said Janet Murguia, of the National Council of La Raza.   

Arizona Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva threw a partisan dig at Republicans, saying that those who oppose the Voting Rights Act do it “not necessarily because it’s burdensome or antiquated, but because people are not voting like they’re voting – but that’s the point of a democracy.” Grijalva was alluding to the fact that it has been Republican-led legislatures who have recently fought Voting Rights Act restrictions on proposed changes to voter laws.

An example of this is Texas in 2011, according to Arturo Vargas, from the non-partisan National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).  “The legislature drew congressional lines to intentionally prevent Latino districts, and designed a voter ID law to prevent young Latinos from voting compared to the white majority,” Vargas said.  Under the new Texas voter ID laws, “an ID issued from the University of Texas was not valid, but a gun license was,” Vargas added.  “You have to look at the demographics and tell me who owns guns versus who goes to school to see what they were trying to do.  Had there been no Section 5 (of the Voting Rights Act), the Voter ID and redistricting laws would be in effect today,” said Vargas.

Texas Republican Congressman Bill Flores does not agree. “I think that’s a false argument, and I take real issue with that,” says the Republican legislator.  “If anything, I think we have done a lot to expand the ability for people to vote, such as early and absentee voting,” Flores adds.  “Section 5 is a dinosaur, and it causes real-world problems; in my district, several hundred people in one area wanted to change some simple voting hours and locations and they had to go through preclearance because of the Voting Rights Act,” he says.  “It’s a relic that is no longer needed.”

Inside the courtroom, Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia wondered if the Voting Rights Act was a “perpetuation of racial entitlement,”a statement extensively quoted in news reports today. But Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the Justices who “mounted a spirited defense of the law,” according to Reuters, pointedly asked whether voting was an “entitlement” or a “constitutional right.”

Sotomayor also referred to Shelby County, Alabama, the county which brought the case to the Supreme Court claiming it no longer needs to be under the Voting Rights Act, as “a county whose record is the epitome of what caused the passage of this law.”

Some Supreme Court observers, like NBC News Justice correspondent Pete Williams, think some of the conservative justices sounded like they might be ready to strike portions of the law, which was reauthorized in 2006 by a large bipartisan majority in Congress.  But Democratic Texas state representative Trey Martínez Fischer, who was at the Supreme Court today, said while there was clearly a lot of back-and-forth discussion, the justices seemed mindful this was a bipartisan Congressional act that “was not done in haste.”


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