The Supreme Court this week heard a challenge to the Voting Rights Act in the case of Shelby v. Holder. On the same day, across the street in the congressional rotunda, a statue honoring Rosa Parks was unveiled.
And one week later, the nation will celebrate the 48th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the march from Selma to Montgomery that helped spur President Johnson to champion the act.
The Voting Rights Act has helped fulfill the nation’s commitment to inclusion — to a big tent democracy that guarantees to all citizens the right to vote. Yet many fear that the right-wing “Gang of Five” on the Supreme Court will once more display their scorn for judicial restraint and strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires pre-clearance of any voting rules that might impinge on minority participation in states and counties with histories of racial discrimination.
President Obama and his Justice Department have defended the act unequivocally. In 2006, a Republican Congress reauthorized the act for 25 more years, after holding 21 hearings and amassing more than 15,000 pages of evidence on continuing voting discrimination in the covered districts.
The margin was 98-0 in the Senate (including the senators from Alabama, Shelby County’s home state) and 390-33 in the House. The Justice Department reported that between 1982 and 2006, it had used Section 5 a total of 2,400 times to block discriminatory changes in voting rules.
Republican President George W. Bush signed reauthorization into law. In the current case, Republican-appointed justices at the District Court and the Circuit Court levels voted to uphold the law. If the Gang of Five acts to overturn it, it will be an act of disgraceful judicial usurpation in a matter of extreme importance to our politics and our democracy.
The Voting Rights Act has been central to the transformation that is making America’s diversity a strength, rather than a liability.
Ironically, it is this very progress that is used to attack the act. Shelby County claims that the areas covered by Section 5 should not be under special scrutiny because things have changed. The election of Barack Obama is used as evidence.
The sad reality, of course, is that since Obama’s election, our politics have become more, not less, racially polarized. Obama’s “rising American electorate” is grounded on the rising participation of minorities (along with single women and the young).
After 2008, a more conservative, more Southern and more white Republican Party set out to constrict voting in ways that would discriminate against minorities.
For example, of the nine states covered in their entirety by Section 5, lawmakers in six have passed restrictive new voting laws since 2010. Texas had its harsh voter identification law overturned under Section 5.
Florida’s effort to reduce voting hours in a way that would discriminate against minorities was blocked. South Carolina had to make changes in its new restrictive laws. Anyone paying attention knows that the Voting Rights Act is more, not less, vital as political parties and leaders struggle to adjust to the inclusion of growing Hispanic and Asian-American populations and the rising participation of African Americans.
When passed less than a half century ago, the Voting Rights Act marked the beginning of real democracy in the South. It has helped måter, but its work is not done.
That was the finding of the Republican Congress and the Republican president, the elected branches of government in 2006. It was the finding of the district and appellate courts in this case. If the rule of law means anything in this country, that will be the decision of the Supreme Court.