Most civil rights challenges to voting come in the form of claims of specific disenfranchisement at the polls. But redistricting efforts are a much bigger threat to minority voting rights and receive special attention by the Department of Justice, particularly in those states with histories of systematically trying to disenfranchise entire minority populations.
Virginia is such a state. But, according to Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, (R) his state has “outgrown” its institutional racism and should therefore be exempt from the redistricting requirements of the Voting Rights Act. Under the law, Virginia (along with eight other southern and western states) must have their redistricting plans “pre-cleared” by the Justice Department in order to ensure that those states are not discriminating against racial minorities when they draw new political boundaries.
Cuccinelli is just one voice in a growing conservative chorus intent on undermining the Voting Rights Act and removing federal protections for minority voters. Conservatives already brought one challenge before the Supreme Court in NAMUDNO v. Holder, attacking the pre-clearance requirement in the statute. The Court ultimately upheld the requirement with a vote of 8-1 (Thomas as the lone dissenter), but there’s no reason to think that the Roberts Court, if given the opportunity and with better facts, wouldn’t take the teeth out of the Voting Rights Act.
Virginia and the other states who face pre-clearance have a long and detailed history of racial discrimination in application and enforcement of voting laws which is why they are subject to Department of Justice oversight. And Congress passed Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act specifically because of that history. It’s impact is undeniable and to lose those protections would have the effect of sending this country backwards into Jim Crow era voting laws where minorities faced little opportunity to participate in our democracy.
photo courtesy of hjl via Flickr