The Voting Rights Act of 1965 remains a landmark centerpiece of civil rights legislation, effectively outlawing voting discrimination and supporting the United States Constitution’s 15th Amendment. One of the Act’s aims is to give power to federal authorities in ensuring certain states with a history of voter discrimination obey the “preclearance” policy covered under Section 5 of the Act, which means that states (known as “covered jurisdictions”) cannot make changes to the voting laws unless approved by the Department Of Justice. Today (Feb. 27), the Supreme Court will hear arguments regarding the Shelby County v. Holder case, which focuses heavily on Section 5’s constitutional merit.
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The significance of Shelby County v. Holder is staggering: If you’re a voter in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Alaska, Mississippi, and Louisiana, Section 5 mandates that these covered jurisdictions must have voting law changes cleared by Attorney General Eric Holder‘s office and the United States District Court in the District of Columbia.
Without the protections of Section 5, these states can make changes to the laws and risk disenfranchising voters by implementing unnecessary changes that serve as nothing more than barriers.
If Section 5 is voted out of the Act, voting rights in these areas could essentially be snatched away. Voters of color will most certainly feel the deepest impact, a fact that many on both sides of the aisle have taken notice of.
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The Act has been renewed and amended four times by Congress; the last 25-year extension was signed in to law by then-President George W. Bush in 2006. Those in opposition of the law, in particular Section 5, claim that Congress made an error in allowing an extension on that portion of the Act.
Lawmakers from preclearance states, led by Republican Georgia congressman Lynn Westmoreland, claimed that the Act unfairly targeted them and stated they’ve made changes to protect the voting rights of its citizens.
Shelby County v. Holder isn’t the first time the covered jurisdiction of Alabama’s Shelby County has sought to file suit against the Department of Justice. The county claims that enforcement of preclearance is unconstitutional and that federal authorities have yet to produce facts that give solid reasons for the states to follow preclearance procedures.
Section 5 opponents essentially believe that race discrimination in voting is no longer a threat to the electoral process, although the last general election proved time and again that flaws in the system were abundant.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits voting discrimination based on race and possible language barriers. After an amendment in 1982 to the Section, lawsuits can be brought against state and local jurisdictions that have allegedly violated the agreements set forth in Section 2. Coupled with Section 5, it would appear that the Voting Rights Act offers all the legal protection a voter of color would need but that hasn’t been entirely true considering the stakes ahead.
Curiously, many of Section 5’s opponents are those from the Right and the bulk of the covered jurisdictions requiring preclearance are in the South – at one time the largest opponents to the Voting Rights Act.
In essence, these states claim that they are tired of being monitored closely when it comes to elections. They assert that the section is unconstitutional and in fact undermines the efforts of civil rights activists as jurisdictions have to maintain racially segregated and gerrymandered voting districts.
Although much of the Act’s sections may seem nothing more than esoteric legalese, the Shelby County v. Holder puts Section 5’s constitutionality under the glaring lights of examination.
Will the court uphold the law and keep these states under preclearance rule or will states have free reign to change voting laws as they please?
These are key questions as a deeply divided Congress continues to widen the partisan chasm in the second term of President Barack Obama. For the election cycles of 2014 and 2016, Wednesday’s argument is a perfect example of the complicated arena of voting rights.
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