The U. S. Supreme Court seems poised to declare Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional.
The challenge, filed by Shelby County, Alabama, was invited by signals sent by the Supreme Court in earlier cases. It will be surprising if the decision departs from the Court’s ideological and partisan 5–4 divide.
Section 5 requires that 9 states and parts of 7 others — all with a history of discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities — get approval from the Department of Justice or the federal court in Washington before making changes to voting laws or procedures. This “pre-clearance” is designed to ensure that changes do not have a retrogressive impact on the voting rights of minorities.
Five Florida counties (Hendry, Hardy, Monroe, Collier and Hillsborough) are covered by the Voting Rights Act.
Essentially, opponents claim that the Voting Rights Act has accomplished its mission and is no longer needed. They argue that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is now just a federal intrusion on state’s rights.
But let’s not forget history.
In the spring of 1965, following the Bloody Sunday attack on civil rights workers at the Edmund Pettis Bridge, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent telegrams to allies across the country to come to Alabama to work for passage of the Voting Rights Act. As a leader of my college student government, I received that telegram and, with two friends, got on the bus, and ultimately made the 54 mile march from Selma to Montgomery.
There was reason to be scared. Two years earlier, three college students, two from my university in New York, were murdered for helping to register Black people to vote. And in Selma, leading up to the march, a Unitarian minister was beaten on the streets and died a few days later.
The Selma to Montgomery march for the passage of the Voting Rights Act ended with the murder of Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit mother of five who was shot from a car containing four members of the KKK. Ten years later, when it was revealed that one of the four was the FBI’s chief paid informant in the Klan, I worked to bring, fund and sustain a lawsuit to hold the FBI responsible for the murder of Viola Liuzzo. (I was then the Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan.)
The tactics of voter suppression have changed since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act. It is less common that people of color face violence or are murdered when they try to exercise their fundamental rights as a citizen.
Instead, bureaucrats purge voter rolls and legislators restrict voter registration activities. (In Florida, a majority of Black and Hispanic voters register through volunteer voter registration programs.) Legislators also cut back on early voting that in effect shuts down programs like “Souls to the Polls” marches from black churches on Sundays. (In 2008 in Florida, a majority of black voters voted during early voting days.)
The tactics of voter suppression have changed, but voter suppression has not ended.
Look at the performance of Florida officials. For the 2012 Election they tried to make it harder to register to vote, harder to vote, and harder to ensure that your vote will be counted. And then they lied about it by claiming that these restrictions were necessary to address voter fraud, or as the governor claimed, to prevent “potential fraud.”
Is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act still needed? Our Legislature and governor are walking advertisements for why America needs the Voting Rights Act and why it would be a disaster for the U. S. Supreme Court to end federal oversight.
But even if the court strikes down Section 5, the fight will not end. The search for other tools to defend the right to vote will intensify.
Howard Simon is executive director of the ACLU of Florida.