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.

Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
Assistant Poll Manager Kim Abenatha helps voters line up at the Crossroads Presbyterian Church in Stone Mountain, Ga. on Election Day.

In deciding Friday to take up a case on a landmark law from the civil rights era, the US Supreme Court may address a question that many Southerners have been asking for years: Did Congress misread racial reforms in the South by reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act without tweaking it? 

 Many legal experts believe that’s the essential point before the high court in a case out of Shelby County, Alabama, in which local officials, backed by a bevy of Southern states, will argue that Congress went too far when it reauthorized the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 2006, and that federal oversight of polling stations and election rules primarily in the former Confederacy is too broad and thus, in some cases, itself discriminatory.

 Those who want to put voting affairs back into the exclusive hands of state and local election officials cite President Obama's reelection on Tuesday as a reason to rethink the need for federal oversight of jurisdictions that, 40 or 50 years ago, had engaged in voting discrimination.

Of course, Mr. Obama lost in most of the so-called Section 5 districts and states. It’s in the South, moreover, that the US Department of Justice cited the Voting Rights Act in challenging new voter ID laws in VRA jurisdictions such as Texas and South Carolina that Attorney General Eric Holder likened to Jim Crow-era “poll taxes.”

Still, election postmortems from both sides of the political spectrum have focused on the strength of the minority vote in 2012: Blacks and Hispanics, especially, were key constituencies contributing to Obama's decisive reelection. 

“The America that elected and reelected Barack Obama … is far different than when the Voting Rights Act was first enacted in 1965,” Edward Blum of the Project on Fair Representation, the group that brought the Shelby County case, told the Washington Post. “Congress unwisely reauthorized a bill that is stuck in a Jim Crow-era time warp.”

Shelby County wants the Supreme Court to declare Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional after the Justice Department nullified a local redistricting effort that attorneys argued played a role in the defeat of the sole black incumbent on the city council in Calera, Ala.

Some on the Supreme Court hinted earlier this year that they saw “serious constitutional problems” with the Voting Rights Act after the court sent a contested Texas electoral map to a lower court without ruling on it. Given that and other recent indications from certain justices, many legal experts believe that conservatives on the court are ready to rethink the future of key VRA enforcement provisions – at a time when many Democrats accuse Republicans in some states of trying to suppress the minority vote by tightening voting laws and registration rules. 

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.

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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