This question arises from the U.S. Supreme Court’s hearing arguments on a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That section was aimed at Deep South states, requiring them to obtain permission, or “pre-clearance,” from the U.S. Justice Department or a federal court before making any changes that affect voting.
Southern states covered by Section 5 are Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Also covered are Arizona and Alaska along with quite a few counties and municipalities in several other states. Since Congress passed the act in 1965, it has been extended repeatedly, starting in 1970 for five years, then for seven more years in 1975, for 25 years in 1982 and another 25 in 2006.
The case before the Supreme Court was brought by Shelby County, Ala., and was rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. In the lower court, the dissenting judge pointed out that evidence concerning voter registration and turnout suggested “the coverage formula completely lacks any rational connection to current levels of voter discrimination” and the formula “is a remarkable bad fit” with the concerns of Congress about voter discrimination.
A better way of putting it is that the 1965 law “is stuck in a Jim Crow-era time warp,” according to Edward Blum, director of the Project on Fair Representation, a legal foundation involved in the case. Others opposing continuation of Section 5 say it is a badge of shame unjustified by the great changes that have come to the South since the act became law.
That idea appears to have taken root among the four conservatives on the Supreme Court — and Justice Anthony Kennedy, the probable swing vote. He talked about other important laws that in our history fulfilled their purpose. “Times change,” he said.
Justice Antonin Scalia minced no words, labeling Section 5 “a perpetuation of racial entitlement,” while Chief Justice John Roberts referred to data showing worse racial disparities in some aspects of voting in Massachusetts than in Mississippi, the AP reported. He questioned whether Southern citizens “are more racist than citizens in the North?” To which Solicitor General Donald Verrilli answered no.
Since the Voting Rights Act was passed, sea changes have come to the South. The sins of the past can no longer justify relegating Georgia and other Deep South states to second-class statehood. It’s understandable that some blacks, remembering the terrible racial violence and ugly discrimination existing before the law was enacted, want the law extended apparently in perpetuity.
Yet clearly, genuine reformation has come to this part of the country — witness the election of numerous African Americans to political offices in cities, counties and states of the Deep South. And if further proof is needed, Barack Obama was elected president, the first black to do so, and then won re-election. Case closed.
It’s past time for Section 5 to go.