In Alabama on Sunday, more than 5,000 people gathered to march from Selma to Montgomery to commemorate the 1965 event known as Bloody Sunday. The ongoing civil rights struggle that led to this historic march resulted in violence against the protestors and sparked the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Last Wednesday, February 27, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. The crux of the case focuses on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that requires the Justice Department to approve, or “pre-clear,” any changes in voting laws in jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination.
Some Opposing Arguments
- Interferes with state sovereignty or rather a violation of “equal sovereignty”
- Claims of unconstitutionality
- Is no longer necessary
- Preclearance was meant to be temporary
Some Supporting Arguments
- Voting discrimination remains concentrated in covered areas
- Voter suppression efforts still happening
- It removed the burden of proof from the victim to the perpetrator
- It is a proactive measure
- It is the most effective tool our nation has to stop discrimination against minorities at the ballot box
After the 2010 midterms and starting in 2011, GOP-led states intensely focused on passing legislation requiring photo IDs, shortening the number of days for early voting, ending same-day registration (Maine), closing polls the Sunday before Election Day (Florida), and instituting onerous voter registration requirements (the League of Women Voters cited this as a major concern of theirs in Florida). Legislators claimed all these measures were necessary to reduce voter fraud.
The photo ID laws many states tried to pass are only effective in preventing in-person voter fraud, of which there is scant evidence. Texas’s redistricting plan and South Carolina’s voter photo ID law* are two instances where Section 5 was used to ensure eligible voters weren’t disenfranchised. Pennsylvania’s photo ID requirement could’ve disenfranchised as many as 750,000 eligible voters. Voter photo ID sounds reasonable on the surface, but there are many reasons people do not have photo ID, plus it can be difficult and costly to acquire.
The lawyers arguing for Shelby County are asking the Supreme Court to strike Section 5 from the Voting Rights Act. However, this is a constitutional issue because Congress, not the Supreme Court, is responsible for reauthorizing it, or not. “The thought the Supreme Court might overrule Congress, and take away voting rights should send a chill down the spine of every American,” Elizabeth MacNamara, President of the League of Women Voters said recently.
In Harvard Magazine’s July-August 2012 edition, Alexander Keyssar’s article, “Voter Suppression Returns,” addresses voting rights and partisan practices. He sheds light on the voter suppression efforts in 2011 and 2012 that many states were attempting to enact prior to the presidential election last November. He concludes: “the laws themselves are unworthy of a modern, sophisticated nation that identifies itself as democratic. They are not effective policy instruments; they chip away at the core democratic value of inclusiveness; and they resonate with the worst, rather than the best, of our political traditions.”
As the author of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, he has much credibility on this issue. Keyssar also writes in the aforementioned article: “Like many critics of the recent legislation, I could welcome a photo ID requirement–if it were made clear that it was the responsibility of the state (rather than private citizens) to insure that every eligible man and woman possessed such documentation.”
Section 5 is still necessary today. It not only protects blacks, but all minorities, the elderly, students, the poor— actually, anyone who may have been blocked from casting a ballot or registering had these restrictive laws been enacted.
Congress reauthorized Section 5 in 2006 until 2031, and it should remain law as long as state legislators try to pull stunts to suppress the vote. The goal should be to expand the franchise, not shrink it. Voting should be free, fair, and accessible. Once we achieve that goal, then maybe it will finally be time to bid farewell to Section 5.
President George W. Bush signs the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in July 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
* South Carolina’s law was only postponed until 2013. The 3-judge panel ruled that barriers to obtaining a photo ID were not overly burdensome nor discriminatory, however, educating voters about the changes and implementing them couldn’t be accomplished in time for the November 2012 Presidential election.
Cross-posted at The Feisty Liberal.