Part of the success in beating back efforts to limit election participation in a number of Republican-led states came from the work of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, which used its pre-clearance authority under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to block measures that could have disenfranchised minorities, like district-level maps in Texas and a stringent voter ID law in South Carolina. Nine states and several localities with a history of discrimination are subject to pre-clearance rules that force them to get approval from DoJ for any voting law changes. And now, the Supreme Court will hear a challenge to Section 5.
The Supreme Court said Friday that it will consider whether laws designed to protect minority voters are unconstitutional.
The announcement comes just days after an election that demonstrated the increasing electoral clout of black and Hispanic voters, who helped propel President Obama to a second term.
It’s against that backdrop that the court will consider rolling back part of the Voting Rights Act, first passed in 1965, to prevent states from disenfranchising minorities. Specifically, the justices will hear a challenge to the section of the Voting Rights Act that requires certain states with a history of discrimination to get permission from the federal government before changing their voting laws.
I guess Citizens United didn’t provide the desired result, so now the Supremes will give it another shot.
More seriously, this is a big deal, as Adam Serwer points out. The specific challenge comes from Shelby County, Alabama, and most but not all of the states under Section 5 rules are in the Deep South, and have locked into a partisan voting pattern for a number of years. But that hardly matters. The Voting Rights Act is a pillar of political participation, and weakening it just invites abuse of minorities at the local all the way up to the federal level. And Section 5 might not be the only target.
The last time conservatives challenged Section 5, in 2009, the Supreme Court handed down a very narrow 8-1 ruling (Clarence Thomas was the only dissenter) that did not declare the law unconstitutional.
The fact that the court is taking up a Section 5 case again so soon suggests strongly that the intent is to strike down part or all of the Voting Rights Act.
Although Section 5 survived in 2009, conservative Justices appeared to believe that the law was discriminatory—against Southern white people. “Is it your position that today Southerners are more likely to discriminate than Northerners?” Chief Justice John Roberts demanded of the attorney defending the Voting Rights Act at the time. Despite the 8-1 vote, the 2009 decision was widely seen as leaving Section 5 hanging by a thread. The justices hinted very strongly that Congress, which had just reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in its entirety in 2006, should change the law soon or risk it being declared unconstitutional next time around.
Needless to say, given the political polarization by race in America, in regards to both African-Americans and now Latinos, conservatives are salivating at the chance to remove the federal barrier to suppressing the votes of those communities in as many venues as possible.
Photo by IslesPunkFan under Creative Commons license.