Last Friday, just three days after minority voters proved to be a powerful voting force in the national election, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Congress originally passed the Voting Rights Act during the civil rights era in an effort to combat disenfranchisement of minority voters. Targeting parts of the country with a history of racial bias in voting, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires that states must seek permission from the federal government before changing their voting procedures when those changes might disproportionately affect members of racial minority groups. The law regulates nine states and portions of seven others. Voting procedures include things like early voting days and times, mail in voting requirements, voter registration procedures, whether voters must show state ID to vote, etc.
This case, Shelby County v. Holder, involves complex and important legal issues like federalism and the scope of the 14th and 15th amendments. However, the most easily observed ramifications of this case will be related to voter suppression efforts. Essentially, the Voting Rights Act makes it more difficult to disenfranchise minority voters in areas where this kind of voter suppression was occurring during the civil rights era. If Section 5 of the VRA is found unconstitutional, states with a history of discriminatory election procedures will be given greater ability to set their own procedures.
This case has received national attention, including from the NAACP and the ACLU. Those who support the Voting Rights Act tend to believe that the act provides helpful protection against voter suppression campaigns.
As one CNN commentator argues, the issue of voter suppression remains one of national importance.
Many believe that several Republican controlled states intentionally tried to make it harder for minorities to vote in the 2012 election, though they did so not necessarily out of any racial animus, but because members of minority groups are more likely to vote democrat.
The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act on four previous occasions, holding that the 15th Amendment grants Congress broad power to prevent racial discrimination in voting procedures. This most recent challenge attacks the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, which was passed by a sweeping bipartisan majority with votes of 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House.
Those advocating that the Supreme Court should find Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional make a number of arguments. For example, staff of the Cato Institute argue that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was successful at defeating systemic racial discrimination in voting procedures and is thus no longer necessary, writing that “In 2006…Congress reauthorized the VRA for another 25 years, without explaining why certain [states] had to be subject to such an intrusive process…particularly when all of the evidence showed that the goal of minority representation and access to voting in the South was achieved.”
Further, they argue that the current version of the Voting Rights Act actually “made matters worse, authorizing the federal government to reject any electoral changes in a covered jurisdiction, no matter how small or insignificant, whenever they are believed to evince ‘any discriminatory purpose’ or ‘diminish the ability of minority citizens…to elect their preferred candidate of choice.’”
Some would argue that that the VRA also harms efforts to updating election procedures to prevent voter fraud.
Some reports, however, suggest that the voter fraud issue raised in the 2012 election was largely a farce designed to support policies that disenfranchise poor and minority voters who tend to vote democrat.
Either way, the Supreme Court’s decision in this case is sure to have significant ramifications regarding federal power and voter rights.