Published in U.S. News & World Report.
Alabama gave us the Voting Rights Act when it violently suppressed peaceful marches in 1965, dramatizing the need for a strong law guaranteeing every American an equal right to vote regardless of race. Now, less than 50 years later, an Alabama county is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate the central provision of that law—Section 5. The court should decline the invitation.
The Voting Rights Act is widely acknowledged as the most effective piece of civil rights legislation in American history. It was passed to make real the promise of political equality in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Section 5 ensures state and local governments with a history of voting discrimination don’t implement new laws or practices that deny Americans the equal right to vote. Unfortunately, it is still sorely needed.
Our nation has made great progress toward racial equality since 1965. But discrimination is still real and distressingly widespread in jurisdictions covered by Section 5.
Leading up to the 2012 election, states passed a wave of restrictive laws that, had they gone into effect, would have made it harder for millions of eligible Americans to vote. These laws—which ranged from voter ID requirements to registration cutbacks to curbs on early voting —would have fallen most harshly on minorities.
Section 5 was critical in turning back the tide and stopping real discrimination. It blocked a discriminatory photo ID requirement in Texas, which required a kind of ID more than 600,000 eligible voters did not have. It required Florida to restore some early voting hours used especially by minority voters. And it blocked Texas redistricting maps after a federal court found they intentionally discriminated against Latino voters.
But Section 5 did much more: It deterred states from passing discriminatory laws in the first place. In South Carolina, lawmakers rejected a highly-restrictive voter ID requirement because they knew it wouldn’t pass muster. Instead, the state passed a law that was more flexible for the 216,000 registered citizens without driver’s licenses or nondriver’s IDs. A federal court approved the less restrictive version.
The last few years have seen some of the biggest fights over voting in decades. After an election marred by discriminatory voting laws and long lines in which minorities had to wait twice as long as whites, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is needed more than ever. Now is not the time to get rid of America’s most time-honored voting rights protection.