WASHINGTON — Lawyers for Shelby County Alabama asked a federal judge in Washington today to declare two key parts of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional because Congress relied on old voting statistics when it extended the historic civil rights law for another 25 years.
The case, likely to wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court, attracted a big crowd as lawyers debated whether certain parts of the country, including Alabama, would backslide into endangering the rights of minority voters if the Justice Department were no longer looking over their shoulder. All or part of 16 states have been subject to federal oversight since 1965, and the formula for how those states were chosen was based on voter registration and turnout statistics from that time.
“The climate in the country was totally different,” said Bert Rein, a lawyer for Shelby County. “It was a crisis.”
But the Justice Department, as well as lawyers for black residents in Shelby County, argued that Congress correctly extended the law in 2006 after analyzing current examples of how some cities, counties and states still try to change their election systems in ways that disenfranchise minority voters.
“Certainly it was rational for Congress to choose to stay the course and continue to see Section 5 do the work necessary to root out discrimination,” said Kristen Clarke with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Section 5 requires local and state governments in those 16 states to get Justice Department approval before making any voting related changes such as redrawing district lines.