For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has served as one of the government’s most effective tools for
rooting out discrimination against minority voters. This week the Supreme Court will consider whether the law’s methods are still constitutional.
The court is hearing arguments in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, which calls into question one of the law’s key provisions: Section 5. That section of the Voting Rights Act requires states with a history of racial discrimination to have any changes to their voting laws pre-approved by the Justice Department’s civil rights division or the D.C. federal court.
There’s no question voting rights have improved dramatically since the law was passed — gone are the days of literacy tests and poll taxes, designed to keep minority voters from the polls. Given the significant improvements, Alabama’s Shelby County argues that the Section 5 “pre-clearance” requirement “exacts a heavy, unprecedented” cost on the rights that states and local jurisdictions have to craft their own laws. Nine states are required to get pre-clearance under Section 5, as are certain jurisdictions in seven other states.
Fifty years ago, Alabama was the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement, where protestors endured fire hoses, arrests and bombings in the fight for equality. “Section 5, which is what we are attacking, was never intended by Congress to be permanent,” said Frank Ellis, a Shelby County lawyer, who is at the center of the battle to eliminate Section 5, and force the federal government to treat Alabama and other covered states like the rest of the country.
“They are still using the same criteria to determine whether these 16 states that are covered, they are still using the same test that they used in 1965,” Ellis said. “Things have changed in the South,” he said. “This is a dynamic society.”
But Ernest Montgomery says things have not changed enough. He was on the city council in Calera, Ala., when city
officials, facing a population boom, redrew his district map. He lost the election to a White candidate. Under Section 5, the Justice Department ordered a new election and Montgomery won.
The minority representation in his district under the old map was about 67 percent African American, according to Montgomery. With the new map, that number dropped to about 28 percent.
Shelby County Pastor Harry Jones calls it discrimination.
“I think it was designed to dilute the power of the minority community,” Jones said. “It did just that.”
Opponents like Ellis say they are not attacking the entire Voting Rights Act. If there’s intentional discrimination, people can sue, just like they do in Michigan, Ohio and other states that aren’t covered by Section 5.