The Supreme Court will soon issue its decision on whether to strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

Opinion: Striking down voting law will set back civil rights

Could a county in Alabama affect your ability to vote? Absolutely. Any day now, the Supreme Court will issue its decision in Shelby County v. Holder, a case challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 requires states with a history of discrimination to get approval from the federal government before they change their voting laws. Most of these states are in the South. Shelby County, Alabama says this is unfair and wants Section 5 struck down.

Section 5 is not just one part of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 is the heart of the Voting Rights Act. Getting rid of it would be a setback to civil rights. It would negatively impact Hispanic voters. And it would represent a troubling overreach by the Supreme Court into Congressional jurisdiction.

The Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution states that no citizen should be denied his right to vote on account of race or color. But Southern states for years found ways to prevent African-Americans from voting. So in 1965 Congress passed Section 5, to ensure an end to poll taxes, literacy tests, and other means of obstructing access to the ballot box.

Now Shelby County maintains that the law is outdated. Shelby County Attorney Frank Ellis told NBC News that the South has changed and that Section 5 is not relevant anymore. Shelby County lawyers cite the record turnout of minorities in the 2012 presidential election as proof that Section 5 is no longer needed. However, Latino Decisions reports that Hispanic and African-American voters continue to face voting discrimination and inequality in the Section 5 states. States covered by Section 5 are more than five times likely to be sued for voting irregularities than non-covered states.

What’s more, record numbers of minorities voted in 2012 despite attempts at voter suppression. Last year, the government relied on Section 5 to fight cutbacks on early voting in Florida, and to block a Voter ID law in South Carolina. It was used to block Texas’ redistricting plan and proposed Voter ID law. Without Section 5, Department of Justice officials say, proposed changes in voting rules would have made it more difficult for Latinos and African-Americans to vote. No wonder that Nina Perales of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) writes, “Latino voters need Section 5 today more than ever.” 

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court may rule for Shelby County. At the oral argument of the case, Justice Antonin Scalia called the Voting Rights Act a “racial entitlement.” This notion is wrong and offensive. Section 5 is not an entitlement; it protects citizens from discrimination. Besides, it was passed and repeatedly renewed by Congress. The last time was in 2006, when President George W. Bush signed a 25-year extension into law. If the Court throws out Section 5, it will be doing so against the clear will of Congress.

How ironic that, in deciding the constitutionality of Section 5, the Court might overstep its own legal boundaries.

True, things have changed in the South. Yet Shelby County lawyers admit that Alabama “more than earned its spot on Section 5’s original coverage list.” Shelby County lawyers also point out that Voter ID laws have been passed in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, two states not covered by Section 5. That’s an argument for expanding Section 5, not gutting it. And if Shelby County’s election laws are fair and just to all, why should local officials fear federal oversight?

It would indeed be shameful if the Supreme Court voids Section 5. To do so dishonors the legacy of the civil rights movement – as well as the voting rights of all Americans.

Opinion: Striking down voting law will set back civil rights raul reyes nbc final1 politics NBC Latino News

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.

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