A case before the U.S. Supreme Court once again asks the justices to change the Voting Rights Act of 1965, arguably one of the nation’s most effective civil-rights laws. Since its inception, the number of blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans in the political process has grown almost to the point of parity with white voters. Such progress was cited last week when attorneys representing Shelby County, Ala., asked the justices to strike down a key provision in the law because they believe it has served its purpose. Granted, a lot has changed since blacks in the South were denied the right to vote due to rigid laws and societal norms that denied them basic rights because of the color of their skin. The days of Jim Crow have passed. But the need for strong federal oversight to protect against discriminatory voting practices has not. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is still needed, as is Section 5, the key component that requires a select group of states, counties and other jurisdictions with the worst history of racial discrimination to obtain approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before implementing any change to their voting procedures.
Attorneys who want the justices to strike down Section 5 insist racial discrimination is no longer the problem it was 50 years ago and that the Section 5 pre-clearance provision puts an unfair and unconstitutional burden on the nine mostly southern states, and those communities in other states, that are now under the law’s jurisdiction. It’s a compelling argument, at first blush. Reality, though, suggests otherwise.
Voter disenfranchisement remains a problem, and the communities that fall under Section 5 oversight still have a worse record of voting-rights abuses than other jurisdictions, according to data kept by the Justice Department. The record hardly provides a ringing endorsement that the law has outlived its usefulness.