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VRA’s Section 5 is a partisan political issue

February 13, 2013

By SID SALTER

The Supreme Court is said to be close to a decision on the future of one provision of the Voting Rights Act that could simplify elections, speed up the unreasonably long process of redistricting, and reduce government expense in nine state’s where the provision is applied — including Mississippi.

Adopted by Congress during the height of the American civil rights struggle, Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act identified states and localities with a history of race-based voter discrimination and mandated that those “covered jurisdictions” must obtain federal approval or “preclearance” from the U.S. Justice Department before making changes to any state or local voting laws or voting districts.

Without question, at the time Section 5 was adopted in 1965, Mississippi’s track record on civil rights in general and voting rights in particular was nothing short of abysmal and shameful. But that was almost a half-century ago and times have changed in Mississippi.

After an initial authorization of five years, the Voting Rights Act has been reauthorized — the last time in 2006 for another 25 years.

States included in the “covered jurisdiction” by the Voting Rights Act include: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. There are also parts of California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota as well as some cities in Michigan and New Hampshire that are included.

The Voting Right Act provided extensive federal oversight of elections administration in states with “a history of discriminatory voting practices” (which the act specified as the ‘covered jurisdictions’) and despite the passage of 48 years, the highest percentage of black voters in the country, and the largest number of black elected officials of any state in the union, Mississippi election law changes are still subject to federal preclearance — just as they are in the rest of the “covered jurisdictions.”

The nation’s highest court is considering the case of Shelby County, Ala., which is arguing that the preclearance requirement encroaches on state’s rights and that preclearance can no longer be demonstrated to be necessary to assure fair elections in Alabama.

In 2009, Chief Justice John Roberts indicated that the court’s conservative majority might consider narrowing or eliminating Section 5 when he wrote in the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District case out of Texas: “Things have changed in the South. Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.”

Based on those gains, opponents of Section 5 argue that Section 5 has become politicized to the point that its enforcement is less about constitutional rights than it is about partisan political advantage.

That argument is a difficult one to counter. In 1965, there was a monolithic Democratic Party in Mississippi that dominated all elections. The white majority in Mississippi resisted the Voting Rights Act and particularly Section 5 to the greatest extent possible.

But in 2013, the divide over support for or opposition to Section 5 enforcement in Mississippi has far less to do with race and far more to do with partisan affiliation. Democrats - from the courthouse to the statehouse to Capitol Hill — are fighting to maintain the partisan political advantage Section 5 gives them.

That obvious fact — and the current makeup of the court — may well signal some thawing of judicial adherence to keeping Section 5 in place for “covered jurisdictions” like Mississippi.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.

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