Supporters of the Voting Rights Act are painting a bleak picture of what it would mean for the rights of minority voters if the Supreme Court were to strike down the landmark 1965 law’s Section 5, which requires state and local governments with a history of disenfranchising minority voters (i.e. mostly in the south) to receive preclearance from the Justice Department or federal court before changing laws that affect voting.
“Broadly speaking, if we didn’t have Section 5 we would find that minority voters are in many places around the covered jurisdictions will have their ability to equally participate in the political process severely compromised,” Julie Fernandes, a civil rights activist and former deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said this week. “We’ll see a lot more of the diluting tactics that we used to have.”
The Supreme Court hears oral arguments Wednesday in Shelby County v. Holder, the most serious challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Right Acts in the nearly 50 years since its enactment. The liberal-leaning Center For America Progress held a briefing with reporters in advance of the Supreme Court hearing where experts, including Fernandes, made the case for the validity and necessity of Section 5. Nervous that their side will face five very skeptical justices at oral arguments, they described the part of the law as critical to protecting minority voters’ rights.
Fernandes warned that certain states and municipalities would be free to enact laws that dilute the African-American and Latino vote — such as a return to “at-large” elections where all of the voters vote for all of the seats and racially-oriented redistricting in Congress, county commissions, sheriff elections and police juries.
“I think that we will see that African Americans and Latinos in particular, but in some places Native Americans, will just not have equal political power,” she said. Fernandes pointed in particular to Alabama, where the Shelby County case originated, and other southern states.
Texas State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D), also at the CAP briefing, argued that the outcome would be systematic efforts in certain state and local governments to marginalize, disenfranchise and even intimidate minority voters.
“Even for those who do persevere, who register and engage in the process, you’re starting to see an increase in voter purges and secretaries of state taking a more active role in maintaining their voting lists,” he said. “You see the voter intimidation tactics of folks … going into minority communities and intimidating poll workers. … So these are things that I think you’ll see more of.”
The Voting Rights Act, a cornerstone of the civil rights movement, was enacted to put an end to racially discriminatory voting practices like poll taxes and literacy tests. It was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1966 and most recently reauthorized by a nearly unanimous Congress in 2006. The legal challenge to Section 5 contends that it has outlived its purpose and now needlessly discriminates against the residents of the covered jurisdictions. Whereas supporters cite the 15th Amendment, which authorizes Congress to ensure that voting laws across the country are not discriminatory, opponents cite the 14th Amendment, which guarantees all Americans equal protection under the law.
To supporters of Section 5, knocking it down at this juncture would be a leap backward.
“And so, there’s already apathy, right?” Fischer said. “You add those layers of risk on top of that and who’s going to want to vote?”
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.