Four years ago, in Calera, asmall city of gentle hills, tall oaks and nine stoplights, an invisible line was drawn a few miles north of the center of town. It stretched up beyond Highway 22 and looped west across Interstate 65, sweeping in recent housing developments, the brown-brick Concord Baptist Church and a new Wal-Mart. The narrow five-square-mile rectangle enlarged Voting District 2. It also radically changed the district’s racial mix. The expansion brought in hundreds of white voters, cutting the proportion of black registered voters to one-third from more than two-thirds. The city, which said it had to redraw its district map to account for a population increase and land annexations, contended the new boundaries would not discriminate against blacks. The U.S. Department of Justice was not persuaded. In a tersely worded, three-page letter emailed to the Calera city attorney on August 25, 2008, it voided the new map.
The letter set off a chain of events resulting in what could be the most important challenge in years to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. A lawsuit later brought by Shelby County, where Calera is situated, seeks to strike down the law’s requirement that Alabama and other states with a history of discrimination obtain federal approval for any changes to districting and ballot rules. They argue that this federal “preclearance” obligation, mandated by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, is an outdated, unfair and unconstitutional relic of an Old South that no longer exists.
Now Shelby County v. Holder is poised to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. Last month a federal appeals court in Washington rejected the claim and upheld the Section 5 preclearance requirement, saying Congress had enough evidence of recent racial discrimination to justify reauthorizing the law when it did so in 2006. Racial discrimination in voting is “one of the gravest evils that Congress can seek to redress,” U.S. Appeals Court Judge David Tatel declared for the court majority. But Chief Justice John Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court appears ready to re-examine the preclearance rule, which covers all or part of 16 states, most of them in the South. In deciding another case three years ago, he wrote: “Things have changed in the South.” He suggested that the provision may no longer be needed. As events in Calera show, however, whether the law is unnecessary is far from obvious.