We so frequently come upon items in the news that cause us to perhaps blink a couple of time, followed by a reaction of, “Is this for real?” Making a successful bid for inclusion in this category was the report of a challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 , or at least a section of it, that has been mounted by parties in Alabama. Shelby County down there is appealing to have the U.S. Supreme Court strike the Voting Rights Act’s provision, in Section 5, that requires the county to get federal preclearance before changing its voter rolls. In arguments scheduled before the court on Feb. 27, Alabama’s Shelby County is expected to claim that the preclearance provision is discriminatory.
Apparently, there’s no beef, on the part of the Alabama folks, with Section 5 having been included in the Act when it initially became law in 1965. A New York Times report noted that the contention of those filing suit was that the provision has “outlived its purpose of protecting minority voters in an era when a Black man has been re-elected to the presidency.”
It’s left to be seen how much will reference to the election of an African American president figure in the argument the legal eagles for these folks will make. But given the voter suppression issues that bubbled up around presidential voting last November, Barack Obama’s re-election may not be the slam dunk, as a ploy, that the Alabama advocates could be thinking it to be. People in Florida, Ohio and elsewhere who were either victims of voter suppression tactics or were actively involved in efforts to thwart them have a whole different take on disenfranchisement strategies against minority voters allegedly being a thing of the past.
The Times reported on a small-town resident in Shelby County being improperly taken off the voter roll, who claimed he was one of hundreds in a town of just 4,000 whose voting rights had been arbitrarily abridged. Such goings-on in Shelby County would disabuse authorities, one would think, of the notion that the time was right for challenging the continued presence in the law of Section 5.
Who knows, maybe it’s simply that the current players don’t or can’t connect to the lay of the land back when the Voting Rights Act became necessary…can’t identify with the gargantuan leap required of President Lyndon Johnson to sign off on it and a Congress steeped in reaction to any such markers of a progressive thrust. In truth, a Voting Rights Act should not have been required. The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, prohibited denying the right to vote on the basis of race. Single-minded determination to get around or just ignore the Amendment, most notably in the South, wasn’t long in coming, and the atrocities that surrounded the denial of voting rights to people of color would be comprehensively addressed only with the landmark 1965 legislation. Not surprisingly, it was challenged in court right quick, the Supreme Court, in upholding the Act in 1966, declaring it was “a response to insidious and pervasive evil which had been perpetuated in certain parts of our country through unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution.”
The Voting Rights Act was one of the main pillars of social change authored by Congress and the Earl Warren-led Supreme Court, whose far-reaching impact included a turnaround of political affiliation in the South. Sharp distinction between the Democratic Party in the South and elsewhere became dramatically obvious and Southern white support switching to the GOP was an inevitable consequence. Conversely, the liberation the Act represented for people of color made possible the election in unprecedented numbers of folks from that demographic to local and Congressional office, as Black voter participation zoomed. It is, in sum, impossible to overstate the importance of the Voting Rights Act as a powerful tool in the leveling process in American society.
Even without the anecdotal evidence reported in the Times article of voter roll tampering, the Shelby County claim (joined in its suit by the State of Alabama) of Section 5 being now dispensable, would seem a hubristic reach. Proceeding with a court challenge well knowing that the county has not cleaned up its act, if that’s indeed what the principals are doing, is beyond weird. Not only in light of those alleged transgressions in Shelby County, but given the tenor of the times, following all the accusations of skullduggery at the polls in November.
Still, it’s a different court to which this pilgrimage is being made. Back in 1966 it was the court of Warren, Hugo Black, William O. Douglas and other titans, who were pivotal in the dismantling of barriers to equal opportunity. It would have been pretty much even money as to how that early challenge to the Act was going to be disposed of. With today’s Roberts court, hedging bets would be a prudent way to go. We shouldn’t be surprised if this court finds validity in Alabama’s contention that having to get federal preclearance before making voter roll changes is an unwarranted federal government intrusion.
From here, though, it’s a no-brainer. As the fellow cited by the Times — a long-time Democratic Party figure in the town of Evergreen — put it.: “We need Section 5 because there are still bad actors.” Better believe it.