Iron-fisted enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act transformed American politics, especially in the South, by making sure minorities had a clear path to the ballot box and an equal shot at public service. Forty-eight years later, after the re-election of an African-American president, the heart of that law is on trial. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Feb. 27 in a case that is sure to ignite a national debate over how far the country has progressed on racial issues and whether minority voters still need extra protection. Shelby County, Ala., opposed by the Justice Department and civil rights groups, wants two key sections of the Voting Rights Act declared unconstitutional. Section 5 bars election officials in jurisdictions with a history of discrimination from changing their voting procedures unless they first prove the changes won’t hurt minorities. Section 4b uses a formula to determine which states, counties and municipalities are subject to Section 5. Though they are not challenging the law, five Florida counties — Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe — are covered by the Voting Rights Act.
Parts of Florida and several other states were included in 1975 under a provision requiring communities to provide bilingual voting materials, including ballots where members of a single language minority made up more than 5 percent of the citizens of voting age. In 2010, about 22 percent of Collier’s voting-age population was Hispanic.
Tim Durham, chief deputy of elections for Collier County, said the provision under which the county was brought under the act has been relaxed over time so that newly identified localities in similar situations only have to meet the language requirements.
But any voting changes proposed by Collier, such as drawing new county commission districts, still must be approved by the Justice Department even though the agency has never issued an objection to the county’s plans, Durham said.
So why hasn’t the county sought to get out from under a law that can be cumbersome to comply with?