For the Voting Rights Act, a Major Challenge

Posted on March 5, 2013. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , |

By Scott Orr

Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the court needed to step in.

Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the court needed to step in.

When it was passed, The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was hailed as the solution to state and local laws that denied blacks and other minorities access to their electoral franchise.

Now, 48 years later, some believe it has outlived its usefulness. And the Supreme Court is poised to decide if the federal government should retain a level of control over voting laws in states that historically discriminated.

On March 3, black leaders and others marked the anniversary of the Selma, Ala, freedom march that helped crystallize support for civil rights laws, including the Voting Rights Act.

“We saw in stark relief the rank hatred, discrimination and violence that still existed in large parts of the nation,” Vice President Joe Biden told those gathered in Selma. While most Americans agree the law made a difference, there is some doubt about its usefulness in the 21st Century.

Just four days earlier, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in a challenge to the law brought by Shelby County, Ala. The case challenges the constitutionality of the law’s Section 5, which requires that certain states and other jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination get federal government approval before changing voting laws.

Opponents of the law argue that it has outlived its usefulness and that Section 5 unfairly continues to punish southern states and jurisdictions, even though they are no longer overtly practicing racism at polling station.

Washington Post columnist George Will pointed out in his column that in 2008 Barack Obama won a higher percentage of the white vote than did Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004. Mississippi, which was once one of the most notorious states when it came to voter discrimination, has more black elected officials than any other state, he added.

“Yet defenders of the continuing necessity of Section 5 merely shrug about the fact that race is no longer a barrier to either the nation’s highest office or to state and local offices in what once was the state most emblematic of resistance to racial equality,” he wrote.

But others are not so sure polling places are free of racism. They point to allegations that in 2012 Republicans in some jurisdictions sought to suppress voter turnout among African-Americans, who greatly favored President Obama.

In that race, Obama’s Democratic backers relied on the Voting Rights Act when they went to court to successfully challenge voting law changes, including state voter-ID laws, that may have been aimed at inhibiting minority participation.

There were plenty of indications during oral argument that the high court may very well side with Shelby County. Chief Justice John Roberts was particularly strong in questioning the continued utility of Section 5. The other conservatives on the court are thought to be similarly inclined.

If the law has prevented even a single act of voter suppression, it should be allowed to stand. The argument that states deserve to be liberated from federal oversight just doesn’t stand up when weighed against one of America’s most cherished freedoms.

Turner GPA is a leading D.C.-based national lobbying and government affairs firm dedicated to delivering cutting edge policy advocacy for the manufacturing, defense, aerospace, health and energy industries. Members of our professional policy team can be reached at (202) 466-2511. We are also on the Web at


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