As the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments in a case challenging the Voting Rights Act of 1968, civil rights advocates are rising to support the anti-discriminatory law. But why? This hardly the first time that the 45-year-old law has been challenged. It’s been just four years since the country’s highest court stopped just short of striking down the Voting Rights Act altogether, choosing instead to make a decision on narrow grounds. On Wednesday, the justices will get a second chance in the case of Shelby County v. Holder — Shelby County is in Alabama — which seeks to determine if Congress overstepped its authority when it passed the 25-year-long renewal of the Voting Rights Act passed by Congress is 2006. In other words, the case should decide whether or not the Voting Rights Act is constitutional. This is a big deal for a lot of people.
The Voting Rights Act is one of the pilars of the civil rights legislation passed after President John F. Kennedy’s death. It was aimed at discriminatory election districts, many of which prevented blacks from voting through a number of devices, including literacy tests at the polls. “The act’s central innovation was its requirement that jurisdictions with a history of discrimination get permission from the federal government — the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington — before making changes to voting procedures,” explains Adam Liptak at The New York Times. “The requirement, in Section 5 of the law, applied to changes large and small, from moving a polling place to redistricting an entire state.” A jurisdiction that’s marked as discriminatory can request that designation to be lifted after ten years, and every single one that’s tried has been granted amnesty.
Put quite simply, if the Voting Rights Act is deemed unconstitutional, our democracy will be thrown half a century back into the past. Not literally, of course. But over the years, Congress has continued to find jurisdictions that qualify as discriminatory and has worked with those jurisdictions to make sure they’re carrying out elections fairly. NPR provides a nice, short list of the kinds of things the law has prevented: “The Voting Rights Act in recent years has been used to block efforts that have included a photo ID law change in South Carolina, early voting curtailment in Florida, and, perhaps most significantly, Texas redistricting that federal officials found intentionally discriminatory.”