The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was created in response to the blatant racial discrimination occurring in mostly (though not only) southern counties and states. At the time, poll taxes and literacy tests were common to stop voting among blacks. The VRA codified policies to allow the federal government to ensure that “the right of U.S. citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” and to regulate election processes.
There are three key sections to the VRA:
-Section 2 prohibits any rules or procedures which ban citizens voting on the basis of race, even if it wasn’t intentional.
-Section 4 indicates a formula, based on a history of racial discrimination and voter turnout, which decides the voting districts that are subject to the provisions of
-Section 5, which requires they get clearance before changing any of their voting conditions, commonly called “preclearance”
On Tuesday, June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled on Shelby County, Alabama v Holder, Attorney General, et. Al. Shelby County was seeking to have sections 4 and 5 of the act ruled unconstitutional and have a permanent injunction on enforcement. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that Section 5, the preclearance requirement could stand. What was deemed unconstitutional was section 4, the formula by which Congress determined who had to seek preclearance. In other words, the court says the government does have the right to require preclearance, it just can’t do it the way it’s been doing it for the past 50 years.
This means the Supreme Court has gutted protections for millions of Americans.
How did we get here?
Alabama, and by default, the city of Calera and county of Shelby, are one of the covered districts listed in Section 4 that must receive preclearance prior to any voting changes.
On August 26, 2008, Calera had its city council elections based on the new map in which the boundaries of the city increased the white voting population and decreased the black voting population from two-thirds down to one-third. They claim this was an unintentional consequence. Eric Montgomery, only the second African-American to serve on the council, lost his seat that he had won easily four years earlier. The Justice Department blocked certification of the results. A day before the elections, Eric Holder emailed the Calera city attorney a three-page letter that said, in short, the map was voided, due to the city’s inadequate tracking of the black population and failing to report the land annexations. After a year of negotiation, Calera decided to throw out its map and created new districts, each with their own city council member. Eric Montgomery won his seat back.
That would have been the end, if it wasn’t for Edward Blum.
Edward Blum, a former investment banker who had unsuccessfully ran for Congress in Texas, was on a mission to challenge governmental policies that were based on racial discrimination – against the majority (aka, white people). He called up Shelby County’s attorney, Butch Ellis. Ellis agreed to the purpose of the Voting Rights Act, but felt the preclearance requirements were overreaching. He agreed to mount the challenge the Supreme Court decided on Tuesday.
With the SCOTUS ruling, this means Shelby County and every other state and district listed in Section 4 do not have to comply with preclearance requirements.
In the court’s view, when looking at the improved parity of minority voter registration, turnout and the election of minorities, especially African-Americans, to office, there are indications things have improved in the states and districts listed in Section 4. After all, we have a black president. All of which wouldn’t have happened without the Voting Rights Act.
Things have changed. Instead of poll taxes, we now have voter ID laws that have largely hurt elderly, poor, female and minority voters, making them unable to register or vote. We have huge disparities in polling locations, in which voters in minority areas are waiting upwards of six hours to vote. That’s not happening in largely white districts. Of course, there are still the gerrymandered districts that continue to be drawn along racial lines, which minimize the impact of minority votes.
Most of these things are occurring in states and districts listed in Section 4. Now, thanks to the Supreme Court, the Justice Department has little to no way to rectify these blatant measures of voter disenfranchisement.
But there is a solution. Congress can change the law.
That’s right, the same Congress in which a large majority has historically benefitted from disenfranchising the very voters the Voting Rights Act Protects, are now in charge of making it work. That can happen. Right after they pass a budget, end the sequester and pass immigration reform.
“In fairness, I doubt that will ever happen. I just cannot imagine — I’m just being honest — Congress ever coming to terms with what they could agree on.”
Good luck, America. Good luck.