The Supreme Court is said to be close to a decision on the future of one provision of the Voting Rights Act that could simplify elections, speed up the unreasonably long process of redistricting, and reduce government expense in nine state’s where the provision is applied – including Mississippi. Adopted by Congress during the height of the American civil rights struggle, Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act identified states and localities with a history of race-based voter discrimination and mandated that those “covered jurisdictions” must obtain federal approval or “preclearance” from the U.S. Justice Department before making changes to any state or local voting laws or districts. Without question, at the time Section 5 was adopted in 1965, Mississippi’s track record on civil rights in general and voting rights in particular was nothing short of abysmal and shameful. But that was almost a half-century ago and times have changed in Mississippi.
The Voting Right Act provided extensive federal oversight of elections administration in states with “a history of discriminatory voting practices” (which the act specified as the ‘covered jurisdictions’) and despite the passage of 48 years, the highest percentage of black voters in the country, and the largest number of black elected officials of any state in the union, Mississippi election law changes are still subject to federal preclearance — just as they are in the rest of the “covered jurisdictions.”
The nation’s highest court is considering the case of Shelby County, Ala., which is arguing that the preclearance requirement encroaches on state’s rights and that preclearance can no longer be demonstrated to be necessary to assure fair elections in Alabama.
In 2009, Chief Justice John Roberts indicated that the court’s conservative majority might consider narrowing or eliminating Section 5 when he wrote in the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District case out of Texas: “Things have changed in the South. Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.”