Posted by on February 27, 2013 in Blog

Today, the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on one of the most important legislative initiatives from the Civil Rights era: Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The VRA ensures that all eligible American citizens are able to vote, unimpeded by processes or regulations— from literacy tests and English-only ballots, to moving polling places and redistricting—that could effectively disenfranchise ethnic minorities.

The VRA has been upheld a number of times over the years, upheld by the Supreme Court in 2009 and extended three times by Congress. The most recent extension, through 2031, passed in 2006 by a 390-33 House majority, and passed unanimously by the Senate.  Given that more lawmakers supported the 2006 extension than supported the VRA’s creation (333-85; 77-19, respectively), it seems clear that the American people believe strongly in the need for these continued electoral protections. But certain state legislators disagree.

Detractors claim that the VRA is outdated, and includes provisions that target the same states and jurisdictions originally included in 1965. Claiming that barriers to minority voting have been addressed over the last 48 years, they cite as proof the many African American officials elected throughout the region. But in fact, the recent elections have illustrated just how important these provisions are.

Section 5 requires that certain state and local governments with a history of voter disenfranchisement "preclear" proposed changes in voting or election procedures with either the U.S. Department of Justice or after a lawsuit before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. This provision gained national attention in the run-up to the 2012 elections, as states around the nation began imposing Voter ID laws, mandating that all voters have state-issued photo identification in order to cast their ballots.  Six states covered in whole or part (i.e., only certain jurisdictions) by Section 5 are among the top Arab American population centers: Texas and Virginia are covered in whole; specific jurisdictions are covered in California, Florida, New York, and Michigan. In Texas, the Department of Justice refused to preclear the state’s proposed voter ID law last year, stating that it would disproportionately impact minority voters.

While it’s true that the same states highlighted in 1965 are still subject to Section 5 provisions, it does not follow that these protections are unnecessary. Demographics have changed, and the minority populations at the heart of the 1965 Act are not necessarily those being targeted today. The fact is that objections to the spate of 2012 voter ID laws were based on the disproportionate impact not merely on African Americans, but on Hispanics, Arab Americans, and Asian Americans, as well as youth, the elderly, and single females. 

It may well be time to revisit the specific states impacted by Section 5, but this should not be done by striking down the provision itself. Such a bold stroke would impact not only oversight of potentially questionable election practices, but would also remove key protections, which have served to increase civic participation among our nation’s diverse citizenship.

Rather, while upholding current law, Congress could be charged with periodically revisiting the impacted states, using current demographic analyses to determine those jurisdictions with significant minority and/or immigrant populations that could be disenfranchised by the manipulation of election processes or regulations. As such, in advance of the 2031 extension deadline, and perhaps in time to celebrate our nation’s 250th anniversary, the U.S. can uphold its promise of liberty and justice for all.

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