The United States Supreme Court will soon begin conference deliberations on the Shelby County Voting Rights Act case, which could change the face of American politics. The Alabama county is challenging the constitutionality of Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act, specifically the “triggering mechanism” for federal intervention, which is based on the population of eligible voters in the 1964, ‘68 and ‘72 general elections. When Congress reauthorized Section 5 in 2006, the triggering mechanism was not updated. It is apparent from the U.S. Supreme Court justices’ questions during oral arguments that the Shelby County plaintiffs have a reasonable chance for victory in their efforts to end federal oversight. Devastating consequences, however, for minority officeholders and Republicans will result.
Section 5 requires jurisdictions covered by the Voting Rights Act to obtain Justice Department “pre-clearance” for all election code changes, but this does not invalidate any state laws. Instead, the affected laws become unenforceable. Section 5 essentially acts as a statutory injunction. If Shelby County succeeds, the injunction will be lifted and the laws previously stayed will become enforceable.
Let’s use the state of Florida’s congressional plan as an example of what could happen in Voting Rights Act jurisdictions over the next decade without Section 5.
Florida’s political maps are being litigated over a 2010 voter-passed redistricting initiative. Should the plaintiffs in the case win a strong likelihood if the Supreme Court sides with Shelby County all of the Sunshine State maps probably will be redrawn before the 2014 elections.
Included in the Florida ballot proposition is a provision that maintains whole counties unless the principle of one person, one vote or the Voting Rights Act requires otherwise. The state has seven big counties, such as Miami-Dade, that exceed the population requirement for a congressional district. If Shelby County wins, 10 seats would be fully contained within the counties. Today, only two complete districts reside within those particular confines. If the state criteria are enforced without the tempering effect of the Voting Rights Act, then two of Florida’s three protected black districts likely will disappear.