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Opinion

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  in the case Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. After a year of politicians manipulating voting laws, the Court must uphold this protection and safeguard every American’s fundamental right to vote.

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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.   

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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.

Myrna Pérez is senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. Lucy Zhou is a research associate in the Democracy Program.

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