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Supreme Court to Hear Arguments to Overturn Vital Part of Voting Rights Act

Photo from AFL-CIO's My Vote, My Right campaign in Philadelphia, Pa.

A new voter ID law threatened to disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters who are mostly people of color in South Carolina last year. Florida officials tried to curtail early voting that could have kept African Americans and others from the polls. Texas went for a twofer in voter suppression with a restrictive voter ID bill and a redistricting plan that put the voting rights of millions of African Americans and Latinos at risk.

Aside from being part of a concerted voter suppression effort by Republican legislators and governors and extreme groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Florida, South Carolina and Texas cases had one thing in common. Thanks to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the federal government was able to step in and preserve the people’s right to vote.

But now the same forces behind the nationwide voter suppression effort are looking to the U.S. Supreme Court to repeal Section 5 and arguments begin Wednesday. While this case is brought by an Alabama county, if the court rules Section 5 is unconstitutional, it will apply to all 16 covered jurisdictions.

Section 5 covers all or parts of 16 states with long histories of voter discrimination. It requires those jurisdictions to receive approval from the Justice Department for any changes they make to voting rights. Section 5 is part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and, in 2006, was reauthorized with overwhelming bipartisan support; 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), in a Feb. 24 op-ed in The Washington Post, wrote:

Congress came to a near-unanimous conclusion: While some change has occurred, the places with a legacy of long-standing, entrenched and state-sponsored voting discrimination still have the most persistent, flagrant, contemporary records of discrimination in this country. While the 16 jurisdictions affected by Section 5 represent only 25 percent of the nation’s population, they still represent more than 80 percent of the lawsuits proving cases of voting discrimination.

The Nation’s Ari Berman writes that the current campaign against Section 5 is the result of three key factors:

A whiter, more Southern, more conservative GOP that has responded to demographic change by trying to suppress an increasingly diverse electorate; a twenty-five-year effort to gut the VRA [Voting Rights Act] by conservative intellectuals, who in recent years have received millions of dollars from top right-wing funders, including Charles Koch; and a reactionary Supreme Court that does not support remedies to racial discrimination.   

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) said in a recent Huffington Post column:

In this past election, more than 41 states had introduced, and in many instances passed, legislation that would make it more difficult for Americans to vote. The limitations came in the form of overly burdensome voter ID requirement and shortened voting hours. With these instances, we can see that the Voting Rights Act is a necessity because it provides a remedy to protect voters, either by addressing actual instances of discrimination or by preventing discrimination from occurring in the first place.

For more on Section 5, read Sandhya Bathija’s 5 Reasons Why Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act Enhance s Our Democracy from the Center for American Progress.

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