What's at Stake in the Voting Rights Act Battle

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments in a case challenging the Voting Rights Act of 1968, civil rights advocates are rising to support the anti-discriminatory law. But why?

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As the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments in a case challenging the Voting Rights Act of 1968, civil rights advocates are rising to support the anti-discriminatory law. But why? This hardly the first time that the 45-year-old law has been challenged. It's been just four years since the country's highest court stopped just short of striking down the Voting Rights Act altogether, choosing instead to make a decision on narrow grounds. On Wednesday, the justices will get a second chance in the case of Shelby County v. Holder — Shelby County is in Alabama — which seeks to determine if Congress overstepped its authority when it passed the 25-year-long renewal of the Voting Rights Act passed by Congress is 2006. In other words, the case should decide whether or not the Voting Rights Act is constitutional. This is a big deal for a lot of people.

What's at Stake

The Voting Rights Act is one of the pilars of the civil rights legislation passed after President John F. Kennedy's death. It was aimed at discriminatory election districts, many of which prevented blacks from voting through a number of devices, including literacy tests at the polls. "The act's central innovation was its requirement that jurisdictions with a history of discrimination get permission from the federal government — the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington — before making changes to voting procedures," explains Adam Liptak at The New York Times. "The requirement, in Section 5 of the law, applied to changes large and small, from moving a polling place to redistricting an entire state." A jurisdiction that's marked as discriminatory can request that designation to be lifted after ten years, and every single one that's tried has been granted amnesty.

Put quite simply, if the Voting Rights Act is deemed unconstitutional, our democracy will be thrown half a century back into the past. Not literally, of course. But over the years, Congress has continued to find jurisdictions that qualify as discriminatory and has worked with those jurisdictions to make sure they're carrying out elections fairly. NPR provides a nice, short list of the kinds of things the law has prevented: "The Voting Rights Act in recent years has been used to block efforts that have included a photo ID law change in South Carolina, early voting curtailment in Florida, and, perhaps most significantly, Texas redistricting that federal officials found intentionally discriminatory."

What the Critics Are Saying

Critics will say that the Voting Rights Act blatantly violates states' rights and ought to be done away with. Furthermore, the original law was only supposed to be in place for five years, but extension after extension means that it will endure. Pending any Supreme Court intervention, the latest extension carries us through 2031. That's getting darned close to a century since 1965! Haven't we, as a nation, moved beyond the need to police racism at the polls? Lots of Southern states that have been targeted by the Voting Rights Act would say yes. Segregation is long gone, and we have a black president. We've actually gone from less than 1,500 black elected officials in 1965 to more than 10,500 today. And we have a black president!

Seriously, though, Southern states view being flagged by the Voting Rights Act as a scarlet letter of sorts, an unnecessary reminder of past mistakes, mistakes that have long been addressed. "Things have changed in the South," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the decision that did not determine whether or not the law was unconstitutional. "Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels." However, not everybody in the South agrees.

What the Proponents Are Saying

Some parts of the country still have discriminatory tendencies, plain and simple. And it's just minorities that are affected. Perhaps the most troubling examples come in the form of voter ID laws that stand to disenfranchise young people, poor people and old people, not to mention minorities. We saw last year how a number of states would like to put these sorts of restrictions in place, and courts prevented them from doing so, citing Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Another issue that's been debated lately is lines at the poll. The Times likened long lines at voting stations to "a sort of poll tax" that rich people could afford to pay. (Most rich people aren't earning hourly wages.) Obama thought this issue was important enough to invite a 102-year-old woman who waited six hours to vote last year to the State of the Union address. Changes to early voting procedures also stand to disenfranchise certain groups.

So it's not just about race, and it's not like we're perfect. Leaders in some parts of the country, especially Alabama from where the latest challenge to the Voting Rights Act hails, say that the Voting Rights Act has been integral to promoting diversity. "There's no question that had it not been for Section 5, had it not been for a Justice Department that was going to make sure the state was going to comply with the Voting Rights Act, we wouldn't have the number of black officials we have, we wouldn't have the number of black people voting we have," Rep. John Knight told The Washington Post this week. Knight added that there was more to be done, "When you look at the Alabama Supreme Court, there are no blacks there. When you look at the governor's Cabinet, very few blacks in the Cabinet. … We have an economic development department in the state of Alabama that's lily-white."

What Happens Now?

Well, the Supreme Court will hear arguments from both sides. Then they'll make a decision. The ultimate outcome will probably not be so simplistic as the Voting Rights Act getting to exist as is or the law being struck down altogether. There's a possibility that the court could strike down the controversial Section 5 or other sections to fit the specifics of the Shelby County case. (Read this for a great breakdown of possible outcomes.) From a practical point of view, it would be silly for the Supreme Court to do away with the law altogether. When Congress renewed the law in 2006, it did so with an overwhelming majority of lawmakers' support — 390 to 33 in the House, 98 to 0 in the Senate.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.