When Congressman Paul Broun of Georgia introduced an amendment on the house floor to block funding for section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in May of 2012, the backlash was instant and immense.[i] Long the hallmark legislative achievement of the Civil Rights Movement, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) represents a lasting guarantee against electoral discrimination. But as voting participation among minorities rises to levels above whites and the blatant discrimination of the 1960s fades into history, many wonder if the VRA still requires the powerful federal enforcement of the act that Section 5 authorizes.[ii] As the Supreme Court prepares to decide on the matter this year in the Shelby County v. Holder case, the answer is yes: we still need the VRA.
American electoral participation in1965 looked very different than that of the national electorate in 2012, when the country re-elected its first African American President to another four year term. Southern states in the 1960s implemented creative strategies to deny Black Americans their right to vote, like requiring minority citizens to pass an unfairly difficult “literacy” test before voting. [iii] Upon its enactment the VRA explicitly outlawed all such prejudiced policies, but Civil Rights activists emphasized that Southern states could easily find new ways to subvert the VRA’s restrictions. As a protection against such manipulations, Congress added the contentious Section 5 to the legislation, which required federal approval to any and all electoral changes in states and counties shown to blatantly discriminate against minorities during voter registration.[iv]
Section 5’s long-standing history was questioned as recently as 2009, when a case brought before the Supreme Court contested the section’s constitutionality.[v] Although it does allow major federal intrusion into an area of law traditionally controlled by states, the Supreme Court didn’t comment on the constitutionality of the law but “suggested [in the majority opinion] that the law may not be ‘justified by current needs’.”[vi] This year, it will come under Supreme Court consideration again, as Shelby County, Alabama challenges Attorney General Eric Holder and his exercise of Section 5 in the small Southern town, where discrimination against minority voters remains a major concern for some activists.[vii]
Shelby County may try to convince the Supreme Court that Section 5 is both draconian and outdated, but Civil Rights history, recent developments and judicial precedent indicates the opposite to be true. As former civil rights activist and Alabama resident Jerome Gray points out, “the franchise remains fragile” in many areas of the deep south, where, based upon electoral policies designed to disenfranchise minority voters, Mr. Gray and others are still removed from voting rolls in places like his hometown of Evergreen, Alabama.[viii] Fortunately, Section 5’s protections allowed the federal court in Mobile, Alabama to intervene and strike down Evergreen’s new voting laws, which the court deemed to be unfair.[ix] As a result, Mr. Gray and 799 others that the County removed from voting registers could vote in the most recent Evergreen election. Stories like these show that the work that Section 5 authorizes the federal government to pursue is far from done, and 1972 voting registration statistics remain indicative of persisting discrimination.[x]
Cases like that of Evergreen, Alabama demonstrate the on-going need for federally mandated election reform. Therefore, Section 5 should stay on the books. The most recent reauthorization, which occurred under President Bush in 2006, extends the VRA for twenty five years.[xi] This version of the VRA requires counties with a minority voter registration of under 50% as of 1972 to continue pre-clearing electoral changes with the US Justice Department or Federal Courts.[xii] If states feel they have eliminated all electoral discrimination, they can apply to be removed from the pre-clearance list, pending Justice Department approval.[xiii] Some areas, including many counties in Virginia, successfully petitioned for removal from the list.[xiv] Despite complaints that the law is outdated, policymakers claim Section 5 continues to allow the Justice Department to stop a number of unfair electoral laws, including a recent Alabama law that would have re-districted the county in order to diminish the efficacy of black voters.[xv]
In 1965, Congress intended Section 5 of the VRA to serve as a temporary provision that would institutionalize voting equality, but rooting out discrimination has proven to be a 50-year process that is far from over. The federal government’s fundamental responsibility is to ensure every citizen’s rights under the 15th amendment, particularly when the state fails to do so.[xvi] Select counties and states across America continue to fail in protecting the rights of their citizens, including community pillars like Mr. Gray in Alabama. The entirety of the Voting Rights Act must remain intact, and the US government must be empowered to enforce it, until people like Jerome Gray, who epitomize the struggle for freedom, don’t need to double check their registrant status every election year.
– Post by Kathryn Babineau, MPP ’13
[i] “The struggle to vote.” New York Times 12 May 2012: A18(L). U.S. History In Context. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.
[ii]“The preclearance problem; Race and elections.” The Economist [US] 5 Feb. 2011: 45(US). U.S. History In Context. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.
[iii] “Sacred, or outdated; The Voting Rights Act.” The Economist [US] 27 June 2009: 57EU. U.S. History In Context. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.
[iv] “The preclearance problem; Race and elections.” The Economist [US] 5 Feb. 2011: 45(US). U.S. History In Context. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.
[v] Dade, Corey. See Previous Citation.
[vii] Liptak, Adam. See Previous Citation.
[xi] Dade, Corey. “Is the Voting Rights Act Outdated?” National Public Radio. National Public Radio, 01 Dec. 2012. Web. 17 Feb. 2013.
[xiv] Ludden, Jennifer. “Is the Voting Rights Act Relevant in 2013?” National Public Radio 25 February 2013. Web, 13 March 13, 2013.
[xvi] “The preclearance problem; Race and elections.” The Economist [US] 5 Feb. 2011: 45(US). U.S. History In Context. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.