A Supreme Question: Will the Court Gut the Voting Rights Act?

There’s a sure way to dismantle the guarantees of democracy—section by section.
Attorney General Eric Holder has blocked several states’ attempts to circumvent the Voting Rights Act. (Photo: Tim Dominick/Getty Images)
Oct 2, 2012· 2 MIN READ
is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.

The Supreme Court got back to work Monday and is now considering whether to take up a case that could have far-reaching implications for black and Latino voters.

In addition to considering appeals on gay marriage and affirmative action, the court is also expected to deal with lingering challenges to the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA).

The Supreme Court upheld the VRA’s constitutionality in 2009, but left the door open to renewed challenges.

“Things have changed in the South,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote at the time. “Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.”

MORE: The Zombie Voter Apocalypse—A Crisis of Minuscule Proportions?

Since the 2009 decision, the Obama administration has been waging a running legal battle over parts of the VRA, particularly Section 5.

Section 5 requires nine states with histories of discrimination—Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia—to pre-clear any changes in their election procedures with the Justice Department.

(Some counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota are also covered by Section 5.)

Whatever the Supreme Court’s decision about the VRA, it’s clear that the law is of fundamental importance to President Obama.

Challenges to the VRA have come from Texas, South Carolina and Florida, among others.

This summer, a three-judge federal panel in Washington struck down attempts by Texas to redraw its congressional and legislative districts to isolate the state’s growing Latino population. The court found the map “does not entitle minorities to proportional representation.” Texas plans to appeal the ruling, but in the meantime will use an interim court-drawn map in November.

South Carolina is also trying to overturn the Justice Department’s rejection of its controversial voter-ID law. Attorney General Eric Holder blocked the implementation of a 2011 requirement for voters to carry one of five forms of ID at the polls. Opponents say the ID check would disenfranchise minorities. That case is now before a three-judge panel in Washington.

Meanwhile, Florida violated its Section 5 requirement by conducting what the Tampa Bay Times called a “sloppy, ill-fated purge of the voter rolls without seeking preclearance under Section 5.”

Moreover, Republican Governor Rick Scott’s administration also sought a three-judge panel’s approval of its changes to limit early voting. That too was blocked.

The Florida and South Carolina cases could come up before the court, but a case being brought by Shelby County, Alabama, challenging the constitutionality of Section 5 is expected to be heard first.

According to ABC News, Alabama’s attorney general and five other states filed papers with the court in support of Shelby County.

Together, the states are asking the Supreme Court to take on the issue now, “before the covered jurisdictions have to spend still more money and time, and forgo still more elections without validly enacted state laws, on account of a statute premised on problems that are now two generations old.”

Their argument is that Section 5 unfairly singles out covered jurisdictions that are unable to implement laws similar to those that exist in states that are not covered by Section 5.

Whatever the Supreme Court’s decision about the VRA, it’s clear that the law is of fundamental importance to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

In a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus gala in Washington September 22, the First Lady said: “To end segregation, we needed the Supreme Court to overturn the lie of ‘separate but equal.’ To reach the ballot box, we needed Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.”

The question is, does the Supreme Court still believe the VRA is necessary to protect the ballot box?

Do American voter rights need legal protection? Say why in COMMENTS.