President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner unveiled a Rosa Parks statue at the Capitol on the same afternoon that the Supreme Court is hearing opening arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, which challenges a central provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Ironic and oxymoronic are underwhelming explanations of this paradox.
We are less than 50 years removed from that fateful Sunday in Selma, Al. Peaceful demonstrators were brutalized on U.S. Highway 80 for seeking the unalienable rights afforded all Americans in the Constitution. That march is referred to as “Bloody Sunday” and is one of the principle events that led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act. Some of those leaders were later assassinated in their pursuit of equality; the Voting Rights Act is one of the highest markers on their tombstones.
Shelby County, Al. is assaulting their legacies by alleging section five of the Voting Rights Act should be repealed because it’s unconstitutional. The crucial stipulation requires specific states and jurisdictions to seek permission from the Department of Justice before passing new voting laws. The states and cities included are those that engaged in voter suppression during Jim Crow and afterward. President Johnson incorporated section five to grant minorities’ equal access to voting without adhering to additional burdens, like literacy tests and jelly-bean counting.
It also applied to states where “fewer than 50 percent of people old enough to vote were registered in November 1964, or if fewer than 50 percent of them voted in the presidential election that year,” according to Think Progress.
The voting rights act has been renewed several times with bipartisan congressional support and was last considered in 2009 in the Supreme Court case Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder. But now, section five is in staid danger of being rescinded. Shelby County’s attorney states that since we’ve elected our first black American president and turnout rates are high among black American voters, section five is no longer needed. Wrong.
The United States is past blatant blocking efforts, but voter-restriction mechanisms are still happening. Section five was used to block voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas, and to prevent Florida from curtailing early voting days. Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed redistricting laws that congregate democratic counties together so Republicans can win more congressional seats. Section five prevented this from happening in Texas, but similar laws have been enacted in Michigan and Ohio. All of these proposed and passed legislations reduce minority voting power.
So though we have President Obama and two black senators, section five is still vital. The Supreme Court may not agree with that premise. The SCOTUS blog is predicting the provision will be repealed 5-4 when the ruling is announced in June; this was affirmed today by Justice Antonin Scalia’s statement that section five is a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
When President Johnson proposed the Voting Rights Act to Congress, he warned that those engaging in suppression would utilize “every device of which human ingenuity is capable” to deny minorities the right to vote. If section five is repealed, Southern states and others that have engaged in subliminal suppression efforts will have an avenue to continue pushing voting boundaries. And there will be no legal institution that can stop them.