Anti-Black attitudes are increasing. Fifty-one percent of all Americans, an increase of 3% over four years, now express such attitudes, according to a recent Associated Press poll. So why has the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to challenge the Voting Rights Act of 1965? The case from Shelby County, Alabama questions whether Congress exceeded its authority when it voted in 2006 to renew Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Voting rights are not guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution-that right is granted to the states. However, the Shelby case does not contest the constitutionality of the voting law itself, which makes it illegal to enforce any voting procedure or election law that discriminates against voters because of their race. Section 5 requires jurisdictions found to have prior voting right violations to be pre-approved by the U.S. Attorney General or the U.S. District Court in Washington, DC before making changes in election laws or rules.
The Shelby case, along with a case challenging college affirmative action at the University of Texas, makes this year’s Supreme Court term momentous for civil rights. The common theme in both cases is whether a 1960s era remedy for racial discrimination is still needed-and justified today. The court’s conservative justices have made it clear they are troubled by Section 5, which puts the South under special scrutiny. Section 5’s pre-review requirement currently applies not only to Alabama, but the states of Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Virginia, South Dakota and Texas. Reportedly, it also covers certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, Michigan and New Hampshire.
(In the 2008 presidential election, the African American Voter Registration, Education and Participation Project (AAVREPP) found discrimination and voting irregularities even in polling places in South Central Los Angeles. This year, AAVREPP again launched a successful get-out-the-vote (GOTV) campaign that contributed to the large voter turnout in that area.)
In its petition, Shelby County argues that Section 5’s pre-clearance requirement violates the 10th Amendment and Article IV of the U.S. Constitution. Both provisions grant states the power to regulate elections. In passing the law (Section 5), Congress relied on the 15th Amendment which prohibits states from denying a citizen the right to vote based on race, color or previous condition of servitude, such as slavery.
The Shelby County petition also claims, -and three years ago Chief Justice John C. Roberts agreed-“Things have changed in the south.” The petition argues, “Voter turnout and registration now approach parity….blatant discrimination, evasions of federal decrees are rare, and minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.” It further charges that the federal government is still relying on data more than 35-years old that fail to account for current political conditions.
George E. Curry, National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), Editor-in-Chief, comments, “Surprisingly, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, which describes itself as, “a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to the economic empowerment of African American communities through entrepreneurship,” filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Shelby County’s position opposing continued oversight under the Voting Rights Act. In doing so, the Black Chamber aligned itself with right-wing anti-affirmative groups, who also filed friend-of-the-court briefs with the Supreme Court opposing affirmative action in the University of Texas case.
The Black Chamber’s campaign brief declared, “….Section 5 is no longer necessary to combat widespread and persistent discrimination in voting and now, perversely serves as an impediment to racial neutrality in voting and the empowerment of state and local officials who represent minority constituents.” Like its right-wing cohorts, the Chamber too, “rejects the assumption underlying Congress’s reauthorization of Section 5 that the exceptional circumstances which justify close federal oversight of electoral practices of many states and locations in 1965 and 1975 persist today. They do not.”
This kind of post-racial rationalization bolsters the Tea Party and its wrongheaded allies throughout the country who, do not publicly proclaim, but apparently ardently believe that Blacks and other people of color, no longer have a right to complain because they now enjoy access, continuing largesse and the same benefits accorded white Americans. (If you believe this, please contact me about purchasing a few snow-capped mountains in Florida.)
Before reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act in 2006, Congress considered arguments of opponents who, like Shelby County, argued that there is no longer a need for continued federal oversight of select jurisdictions. The Justice Department quoted findings by Congress that while blatant voter discrimination had been reduced, vestiges of discrimination in voting continue to exist as demonstrated by second (and now third) generation barriers constructed to prevent minority voters from fairly participating in the electoral process. (The prolonged and unprecedented attacks on President Obama and undisguised voter suppression efforts leading up to this year’s presidential election leave no doubt as to the broad-based appeal of these obscene tactics.)
Since 1982, there were approximately 800 court rulings favorable to voters of color, according to friend-of-the-court briefs by civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union. Approximately 81% of these rulings were brought against Section 5-covered jurisdictions!
Most Blacks strongly support the need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because they experience continuing race-based discrimination in their everyday lives.