The Supreme Court today is hearing arguments for and against a key part of the Voting Rights Act designed to protect against racial discrimination at the polls. It’s an important case that could upend the way certain parts of the country go about making changes to voting laws. Below, we give you everything you need to know about it.
What is the Voting Rights Act?
Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, the sweeping legislation was designed to prevent racially discriminatory voting practices.
What is Section 5?
This is the part of the Voting Rights Act under review by the high court today. The act stipulates that areas of the country with a history of racial discrimination must receive pre-clearance from the Justice Department or a federal court before making any voting law changes.
Which states are subject to Section 5?
Alabama, which is the subject of the Supreme Court case, and eight other complete states as well as some other selected jurisdictions elsewhere are subject to Section 5. Most of the the states are in the south.
Over the years, Congress has reauthorized Section 5 several times, most recently in 2006. That decision is at the heart of the current case involving Shelby County, Ala. The question before the court is whether Congress’ 2006 reauthorization — which extended the provision for another 25 years — exceeded its constitutional authority.
Why do opponents want to do away with Section 5?
They say that it is outdated. “The violence, intimidation and subterfuge that led Congress to pass Section 5 and this court to uphold it no longer remains,” says the Shelby County challenge. And as NPR notes, the formula still relies on election data from 1972. Shelby County Attorney Frank Ellis explains the opposition in this CBS News report:
Why do supporters want to keep it?
They believe it’s still a necessary preventive measure against changes to voter ID laws, district lines and other adjustments that could threaten the rights of minority voters. President Obama, who believes Section 5 should be kept in place, summed it up like this in a recent interview with Joe Madison of SiriusXM Radio:
It’s not clear what the court will do. But it’s worth bearing in mind that as The Washington Post’s Robert Barnes noted, in 2009, Chief Justice John Roberts signaled receptivity to the argument that the provision is outdated.
“Things have changed in the South,” he wrote, adding: “The evil that Section 5 is meant to address may no longer be concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance. The statute’s coverage formula is based on data that is now more than 35 years old, and there is considerable evidence that it fails to account for current political conditions.”