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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.

By Myrna Pérez and Lucy Zhou / February 27, 2013

President Lyndon B. Johnson holds the signed Voting Rights Act at the White House Aug. 6, 1965. The Supreme Court begins hearings today on the constitutionality of Sect. 5 of the Act, which op-ed contributors Myrna Pérez and Lucy Zhou say '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...denying American citizens the equal right to vote.'

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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.

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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 But the Supreme Court rejected this argument shortly after the Act was originally enacted in 1965.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.

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