Rightly regarded as one of the most lustrous legacies of the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlaws discrimination in voting nationwide, but it also requires that states with a history of denying minorities the right to vote obtain the approval of a federal court or the U.S. Justice Department before changing election procedures. This “preclearance” provision, contained in Section 5 of the act, has been repeatedly reauthorized by Congress — most recently in 2006, when it was extended for another 25 years by margins of 390 to 33 in the House and 98 to 0 in the Senate. Between 1982 and 2006, the Justice Department used the preclearance process to block the enforcement of more than 2,400 voting changes on the grounds that they would undermine minority voting rights. Yet this proven protection may be on constitutional life support. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case from Alabama that challenges Section 5 and the formula by which nine states, mostly in the South, and parts of seven others (including California) are required to obtain preclearance when they redraw district lines, modify registration procedures or change any other practice that might disadvantage minority voters. Supporters of the Voting Rights Act fear that conservative members of the court — and perhaps not only conservatives — are poised to rule that the law violates the prerogatives of states that no longer practice the sort of blatant discrimination that inspired the original legislation.
That would be a mistake of historic proportions. It may no longer be true that African Americans registering to vote are required to face down hostile election officials or endure literacy tests, or that city councils and legislatures in the South are all-white and determined to remain so. But subtler forms of discrimination against blacks and other minorities persist — such as gerrymandering to dilute their voting power or relocating polling stations to make them less accessible to minorities — and Congress has reasonably determined that they are more of a problem in some places than in others. The court should respect that judgment.
Critics complain that preclearance unfairly punishes parts of the country that long ago changed their ways and that, while the law allows for jurisdictions to “bail out” of preclearance, the process is overly onerous. They also complain of a double standard: When Texas wanted to impose a photo ID requirement on voters, it had to seek federal approval (which was denied); Pennsylvania was able to enact photo ID legislation without such an encumbrance.
Members of the Supreme Court apparently share those concerns. Four years ago, the court said that the law’s preclearance provision raises “serious constitutional questions.” “Things have changed in the South,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote. “Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.” In light of that progress, Roberts raised the question of whether preclearance was still a justifiable infringement of the “equal sovereignty” of the states. Seven other justices signed Roberts’ opinion. Justice Clarence Thomas went further and declared flatly that Section 5 was unconstitutional.
Full Article: Keep ‘preclearance’ in Voting Rights Act – latimes.com.