Voting-rights advocates hope the Supreme Court won’t rule against Section 5, a key piece of the Voting Rights Act. But while they wait for the decision to be handed down, they’re already strategizing for a post-Section 5 world. “If the Court struck down or weakened Section 5, it would lead to the largest rollback of American democracy since the end of Reconstruction,” Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told reporters Wednesday. Shelby County, Ala., is challenging the constitutionality of Section 5, which allows the U.S. Justice Department to block any proposed election changes made by certain areas with a history of racial discrimination—mostly in the south—if those changes might reduce the voting power of minorities. Many Court observers expect that the ruling, which could come as soon as Thursday, will strike down or significantly water down Section 5.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin Republican who led the 2006 effort to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, is signaling that if that happens, he’ll pursue legislation to undo the damage. “If part or all of Section 5 is struck down, Congressman Sensenbrenner will review the Court’s decision and take the necessary action to ensure voting rights are protected,” Ben Miller, a spokesman for Sensenbrenner, said in a statement to MSNBC.
Voting-rights advocates say they’re beginning talks with friendly lawmakers in both parties on Capitol Hill toward the same end. One potential approach, said Deborah Vagins, the ACLU’s senior legislative counsel on civil rights, would be to strengthen remaining parts of the Voting Rights Act so that they bar not just intentional discrimination, but also actions with discriminatory effects, as Section 5 does. “The goal is that we recapture in legislation as much as possible of what we lost,” Vagins told MSNBC.
Vagins noted that Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006 by overwhelming majorities. “It’s possible that if they view this as an attack on their constitutional Congressional authority, and they’re reminded of the bipartisan history, that this is something that we can get done in the near term,” she said.
Still, given the GOP caucus’s recent rightward shift, as well as the general partisan gridlock of Capitol Hill, even supporters of the strategy say it would be a heavy lift.