Has the country put its racist past behind it? That question is at the core of the challenge to the Voting Rights Act. The arguments before the court raised questions about whether new, more subtle forms of voting discrimination have taken the place of Jim Crow laws.
In 1870, the Constitution guaranteed Blacks the right to vote. But for many decades afterward, Whites in the post-slavery South used poll taxes and literacy tests to block African-Americans from voting.
That changed in 1965 with enactment of the Voting Rights Act, which let minorities file lawsuits against voter discrimination. Section 5 of that law went even further, requiring nine states, mostly in the South, and scores of counties and townships in seven other states, all with histories of disenfranchisement, to get federal approval before making any election change. Changes can include everything from a different poll location to a new political redistricting map.
The voting act was renewed by Congress in 2006 for another 25 years. The Justice Department and the federal courts last year used Section 5 to block voter restrictions in South Carolina, Texas and parts of Florida. That saved hundreds of thousands of votes that would otherwise have been lost in November, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Many were cast by Blacks and Hispanics who turned out for Obama.
Lawyers for Shelby County, Alabama, which is challenging Section 5, say the tables have turned in a nation that is now much more racially diverse, with minority voters possibly holding an unfair advantage.
“You have a different constituency from the constituency you had in 1964,” attorney Bert Rein told the justices. “Senators who see that a very large group in the population has politically wedded themselves to Section 5 are not going to vote against it.”
Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Election Law Blog, says the “smart money” now is on the Supreme Court striking down Section 5, leading to consequences for minority voters such as “more brazen partisan gerrymanders, cutbacks in early voting and imposition of tougher voting and registration rules in the formerly covered jurisdictions.”
But if the court strikes down “a crown jewel of the civil rights movement,” he said, that could spark a public backlash that sends Congress back to the drawing board, with any resulting new law applying equally to all states.
Associated Press writer Mark Sherman and AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
EDITOR’S NOTE _ “America at the Tipping Point: The Changing Face of a Nation” is an occasional series examining the cul
tural mosaic of the U.S. and its historic shift to a majority-minority nation.