The Supreme Court is expected by the end of the month to announce its ruling on a case that could end a landmark Civil Rights-era law designed to combat discriminatory voting practices nationwide. All or parts of 16 states, mostly in the South, currently must receive approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before making changes in the way they hold elections. The provision is part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act — enacted to stop Jim Crowe-era practices such as literacy tests, poll taxes or other measures designed to keep blacks from voting. But Shelby County, Ala., is challenging the constitutionality of the advance approval, or “preclearance” requirement, saying it no longer should be forced to live under oversight from Washington because it has made significant progress in combating voter discrimination.
The county — a mostly white suburb of Birmingham — also argues that preclearance is an encroachment on state sovereignty. “The South has changed,” Bert Rein, an attorney representing Shelby County, told the Supreme Court during oral arguments on the case in February.
And county Attorney Frank C. Ellis Jr., has said voter discrimination today is no worse in jurisdictions under preclearance than those outside the law’s reach.
“We are a different and better nation today, so it is only right that our federal laws should treat each of the 50 states equally,” Ellis said after the oral arguments.
But supporters of preclearance say it has been among the nation’s most effective tools to eradicate racial discrimination in voting. And without it, they say states might seek to reinstate or push a new wave of discriminatory voting measures previously blocked or deterred by the law.
“This critical tool stops discriminatory election changes before they can harm voters by requiring jurisdictions covered by [the law] to demonstrate that their proposed voting changes do not have a racially discriminatory intent or effect,” said a report released last week by Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.