Here we go again. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is on stage once more. This time a case emanating from Shelby County, Alabama, serves as the vehicle for challenging the constitutionality of Section 5 of the act. This section requires any change in any aspect of voting procedures of a jurisdiction must be approved by the United States Justice Department before such a change can go into effect. The catch is that Section 5 applies only to certain states or parts of states with significant minority population and a history of racial discrimination. These include most states of the “old Confederate south” and certain counties in a few other states such as California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota. With each passing year the resentment of many in those states known as the Voting Rights Act States seems to increase. Being singled out and ridiculed for conditions they believe have sufficiently changed is wearing thin with many in the affected states. Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said as much recently when he was quoted in USA Today as stating that in “over 50 years, we’ve gotten that behind us.” Barbour went on to make a case for equal treatment of all states when he said, “The same rules ought to apply to Massachusetts, Minnesota and Montana that apply to Mississippi.”
This line of thinking has often been employed in the past to convince others that they would also resent abiding by such a selective law, and that it should thus be eliminated altogether. However, it would seem that the ideal solution in today’s political environment would be to take Gov. Barbour at his word. Rather than kill the Voting Rights Act and Section 5 along with it, simply extend the VRA to the entirety of all 50 states.
A case can be made that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is more necessary now than at any time in recent years. While the days of overt discriminatory action simply to deny one segment of the population access to the ballot box are past, the modern era of custom-designed electoral districts using racial demographics as markers for shaping those districts makes it very likely that inadvertent discrimination can and likely has occurred.
The process of redistricting legislative districts is arguably one of the most competitive political battles that can be fought. Republicans have struggled in recent national elections to attract support of African-American and Hispanic voters, but they have been quite successful in their efforts to gain control of legislatures and governor’s mansions.
Republicans have laid claim to 30 state legislatures and 30 governors’ seats following recent elections. These are the keys to controlling congressional and legislative redistricting. Both the Democrats and Republicans have plumbed the depths of computer and mapping technology to ensure their efforts yield districts favorable to the party in power.