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Voting Rights Act: Why many Southern states are glad of Supreme Court case

After minorities played a big role in reelecting President Obama, the US Supreme Court says it will take up the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the issue of federal oversight over voting in mostly Southern jurisdictions.

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Lower federal and state courts have made a variety of rulings on new voter ID laws this year. In two cases – Pennsylvania and South Carolina – courts found the new laws constitutional, but blocked their implementation this year because the courts felt state officials and residents didn’t have enough time to adjust to the new requirements before Election Day.

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While the high court upheld the Voting Rights Act in a 2009 case, conservative justices wondered then if the law had done its job so well that it now discriminated against Southern white people.

“Things have changed in the South,” argued Chief Justice John Roberts in 2009. “Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.”

Opposition to the VRA raises a stubborn specter of a lingering racism overlaying America’s electoral landscape. Many Northerners believe that Southerners by and large can’t be trusted to ensure that minorities have equal access to the polls. And some see the legal challenge to the VRA as a challenge to Congress’s overwhelming vote in 2006 to reauthorize the law.

Those defending the need for continued federal oversight recently cited statistics showing that minorities are less likely to have state identification required by new voter ID laws, thus putting an undue burden on specific groups. They also cite the zest with which Republican legislatures in the South focused on voter fraud ahead of the election, despite studies that show voter fraud is rare.

“If the experience over the last 12 months proves anything, it's that the Voting Rights Act is as vital today as it was in 1965 when originally passed,” writes Doug Kendall, founder of the Constitutional Accountability Center, in a Huffington Post commentary. “The 2012 election may be over, but the fight to protect voting rights has just begun.”

But VRA critics say the American people have shown at the polls that the playing field is now even, and that it’s no longer necessary to punish Southern jurisdictions for past sins. At the very least, say plaintiffs in the Shelby County case, Congress must use its power to enforce the VRA on the basis of evidence of contemporary prejudice instead of targeting jurisdictions that were identified as discriminatory more than 40 years ago, in the heat of America’s battle over civil rights.

[Editor's note: The original headline of this story was changed to correctly describe the Supreme Court's role in the case. In addition, changes have been made throughout the body of the story to correct a mischaracterization of the question before the court and other errors.]


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