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To Protect Democracy, Supreme Court Must Fully Uphold Voting Rights Act

Today, the Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. After a year of politicians manipulating voting laws, the Court must uphold this protection and safeguard every American’s fundamental right to vote.

Published: February 27, 2013

Published by The Chris­tian Science Monitor.

For gener­a­tions, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 has been instru­mental in making the prom­ise of our demo­cracy a real­ity for millions of citizens. Today, the Supreme Court will consider the consti­tu­tion­al­ity of Section 5 of the Act ­– one of the most effect­ive civil rights tools in our nation’s history – in the case Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. After a year where politi­cians manip­u­lated voting laws for their own bene­fit, the Court must uphold this protec­tion and safe­guard every Amer­ic­an’s funda­mental right to vote.

Section 5 requires certain states and juris­dic­tions with docu­mented histor­ies of deny­ing minor­ity voting-rights to gain approval from the Depart­ment of Justice or a federal court before chan­ging voting proced­ures. This “preclear­ance” process is designed to ensure the changes do not discrim­in­ate against minor­ity voters, either inten­tion­ally or unin­ten­tion­ally. Shelby County, a largely white suburb of Birm­ing­ham, filed suit in 2010, claim­ing Section 5 is uncon­sti­tu­tional because it hurts states’ rights.

Oppon­ents of the law say it is unfair for some states to have to follow these rules. But the Supreme Court rejec­ted this argu­ment shortly after the Act was origin­ally enacted in 1965. In total, four separ­ate Court decisions have upheld the Act through the decades, and in 2006, Congress voted over­whelm­ingly to reau­thor­ize it.

Oppon­ents also argue the law is no longer neces­sary – that discrim­in­a­tion in our elect­oral process is a thing of the past. But the recent push to restrict voting, which came heav­ily in juris­dic­tions covered by Section 5, proves them wrong.   

In 2011 and 2012, 19 states passed more than two-dozen meas­ures that would have effect­ively made it harder to vote, the biggest roll­back in voting rights since the Jim Crow era. These meas­ures included voter ID laws, early-voting cutbacks, and curbs on community-based voter regis­tra­tion drives – all of which imposed burdens on minor­ity voters.

The Bren­nan Center for Justice and other voting-rights advoc­ates fought back. Citizens rejec­ted these laws at the polls, nearly a dozen courts over­turned or weakened restrict­ive meas­ures, and the Depart­ment of Justice blocked others. In the end, far fewer voters were affected by the voting-law changes than initially predicted.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was instru­mental in protect­ing these votes.

For example, last year, the Depart­ment of Justice opposed a Texas law demand­ing strict photo iden­ti­fic­a­tion that many eligible Amer­ic­ans do not have. In late August 2012, the review­ing federal court agreed, deny­ing Texas preclear­ance for the change because the voter ID law would have negat­ively impacted minor­ity voters. A federal court also refused to preclear the legis­lature’s redis­trict­ing plan, find­ing the new lines inten­tion­ally discrim­in­ated against minor­it­ies. Because of Section 5, Texas could not imple­ment these meas­ures.

Like­wise, in Flor­ida last year, the Justice Depart­ment opposed portions of a Flor­ida law that cut the early-voting period in half, among other restric­tions. A federal court denied preclear­ance to Flor­id­a’s law based on evid­ence it reduced early-voting oppor­tun­it­ies used dispro­por­tion­ately by minor­ity voters.

In South Caro­lina as well, the Bren­nan Center got involved in a case arguing against preclear­ance of the state’s voter ID require­ment. The court did approve the law for future elec­tions (it was not in effect for 2012 because there was not enough time for citizens to obtain proper ID), but it approved it only after inter­pret­ing the law in a way that allows all South Carolini­ans to vote even if they lack photo ID.

US District Judge John Bates acknow­ledged in his opin­ion that Section 5 played a “vital func­tion” in the case, and that without the review process under the Voting Rights Act, South Caro­lin­a’s voter ID law “certainly would have been more restrict­ive.”

In 2013, some politi­cians are at it again. Restrict­ive voter photo-ID laws have passed legis­latures in a number of states, includ­ing Virginia, whose new law awaits the governor’s signa­ture and will then require federal preclear­ance before going into effect.

Without Section 5, voters would need to chal­lenge restrict­ive laws on a case-by-case basis – after they are already enacted. This is an inef­fi­cient method to protect minor­ity voting-rights. It would allow discrim­in­at­ory laws to remain in effect while oppon­ents endure the slow and expens­ive litig­a­tion process of chal­len­ging them.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, however, is able to block discrim­in­a­tion before it occurs, acting as both a deterrent and a remedy to state and local govern­ments whose laws end up inten­tion­ally or unin­ten­tion­ally deny­ing Amer­ican citizens the equal right to vote.

Not only is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act a neces­sary and effect­ive tool, it is also a symbol of our nation’s struggle and commit­ment to safe­guard­ing the most funda­mental right of Amer­ican demo­cracy. To weaken or inval­id­ate this Act would be a shame­ful depar­ture from the values our soci­ety holds so dear – equal­ity, fair­ness, and an inclus­ive demo­cracy. The Voting Rights Act is a reflec­tion and real­iz­a­tion of these values, and it must be fully upheld.