Inside Story Americas

How relevant is the US Voting Rights Act?

As the Supreme Court hears a challenge over one section of the act, we ask if it is still necessary and why.
Last Modified: 28 Feb 2013 12:09

The five-decades-old Voting Rights Act is considered a triumph of the civil rights era. It was put in place to ensure that states with deep history of racial discrimination did not prevent minorities from their constitutional right to vote.

"... what the Voting Rights Act did was abandon the literacy test and establish that if localities were discriminated in registeration and voting against minorities that federal registrars and federal election observers could come in to make sure that African-Americans could register and vote. This led to an explosion of African-American registration and voting from very low levels to the point today where African-Americans vote at the same levels and maybe even higher levels in some places."

- Allan Lichtman, a distinguished professor of History at American University in Washington

But the US Supreme Court is now considering whether to do away with a crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 5 requires mostly conservative southern states to get federal permission before making changes to the way they hold elections.

It is a law that helped challenge a push in some parts of the country to pass new voter ID legislation, which opponents say would have discriminated against minorities during the last election campaign.

But the Supreme Court has a conservative majority - and some of those justices have openly expressed sympathy with the law's opponents in the past.

Supporters of the Voting Rights Act, however, say that while there have been advances in civil rights, discrimination still persists. They point to various voter ID laws put in place by several states before the last US election.

In the last five years, the US Supreme Court has issued two decisions that have set precedents for diluting parts of the Voting Rights Act.

In 2008, the court upheld a voter identification law enacted by the state of Indiana. It ruled that the threat of voter fraud justified this additional burden of proof - a burden disproportionately felt by minorities. This ruling has inspired several voter identification laws across the US.

"We saw in 2012 folks are still experiencing, feeling like their vote doesn't count or they are being inhibited from accessing the ballot box. So I think as we look at the minority populations, young folks that  really comprise the bulk of one of the largest voting blocks in the country, recognising Section 5 is huge as we continue to move along the spectrum of making sure that we provide access and democracy at its very purist form."

- Sammie Dow, the National Youth and
College director at the NAACP

In 2009, the court ruled that a locality in Texas state could be exempted from seeking federal clearance for any change in election laws. This decision signalled that the conservative-majority court was ready to reconsider Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

During today's oral arguments, Justice Antonin Scalia justified why he thought it was necessary for the US Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue. He said Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act represented the "perpetuation of racial entitlement".

"Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political process," he added.

Inside Story Americas, with presenter Kimberly Halkett, travelled to Shelby County in Alabama - which brought the case to the Supreme Court to ask: Why is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act still necessary?

To discuss, we are joined by guests: Allan Lichtman, a distinguished professor of History at American University in Washington; Sammie Dow, the National Youth and College director at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and Lenny McAllister, a former Republican congressional candidate and author of Diary of a Mad Black PYC (Proud Young Conservative).

"We're not equal like we should be. But we should be equal and have every right the citizens of Shelby County or Alabama have."

Leila Mitchell, a voting rights activist


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