Today, the justices of the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act for the fifth time since the law’s passage in 1965. This section of the Voting Rights Act mandates that areas of the nation with a history of barring people of color from voting must get approval from the Department of Justice or a federal court before they alter voting rules. A plaintiff from Shelby County, Alabama, is challenging section 5, saying that the discriminatory environment that once justified its enactment is much improved. Civil rights groups disagree, saying that the situation is improved because of the Act. In past challenges to the law, the Court has cited the fifteenth amendment – no governmental body can stand in the way of an individual’s right to vote – in their decision to uphold all components.
Frank “Butch” Ellis, attorney to the Shelby County plaintiff, told NPR that “The South has changed[.] There’s probably bits of [discrimination] everywhere, but there’s no evidence that it’s more prevalent in these covered jurisdictions than it is in the non-covered jurisdictions. That’s our complaint.” Ellis argues that the federal government oversteps its bounds in dictating what certain states can and cannot do with its voting rules.
A voting rights expert who has filed briefs on various voter suppression cases, Pam Karlan, said that “Shelby County still advertises itself as the heart of the Heart of Dixie, and that tells you that some things have not changed, or at least haven’t changed enough to take the bandage off the wound.”
A county or city with ten consecutive years without questionable proposed changes to its voting structure is exempt from federal monitoring.Politico notes that Shelby County has not toed the line; the city of Calera (within Shelby County) proposed a reshaping of its district in 2008 which would reduce the number of African American voters from 70.9% to 29.5%. The Department of Justice rejected the proposition, citing the rights of all people to select their representatives.
The case goes before the court after an election year that included multiple legislative attacks aimed at suppressing minority voters. Last year, 17 states passed voter suppression laws that increased wait times at the polls, decreased early voting days, and mandated state-issued IDs requirements for voting. New laws affecting the election process have already been suggested this year in preparation for mid-term elections.