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Key section of Voting Rights under US Supreme review

Marc Morial

“I risked my life defending that right.  If we are ever to actualize the true meaning of equality, effective measures such as the Voting Rights Act are still a necessary requirement of democracy,” said Georgia U.S. Rep. John Lewis

On Sunday, in commemoration of the 48th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” Lewis, Vice President Joe Biden and a coalition of citizens and civil rights advocates re-enacted the March 7, 1965, Selma to Montgomery voting rights march that was halted on the Edmund Pettus bridge by Alabama state troopers wielding billy clubs and tear gas.

Bloody Sunday led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, outlawing discriminatory voting tactics that had routinely denied millions of African Americans the right to vote, especially in the South.

Although an overwhelmingly bipartisan majority of Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006 for 25 more years, Shelby County v. Holder, which was argued before the Supreme Court last week, threatens the very heart of the law and challenges the constitutionality of the critical pre-clearance provision — known as Section 5.  

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination to receive pre-approval from the Justice Department or a federal district court in Washington, D.C., for any change to their voting rules. The pre-approval is required to ensure such changes do not discriminate against voters who are racial, ethnic or language minorities.

The flagrant and aggressive voter suppression efforts that occurred in many of the very states subject to Section 5 pre-clearance during the past election underscores that this critical measure is still necessary to protect the fundamental right to vote.

The Urban League has joined other civil rights organizations in signing on to an amicus brief in support of Section 5, and is speaking out in favor of keeping it alive. In fact, on Feb. 27, the day the law was debated in the Supreme Court, we rallied with thousands of other supporters outside the Court in a mass show of support.  

Section 5 detractors argue that so much progress has been made since 1965 that its protections are no longer necessary.  Justice Antonin Scalia even went so far as to call it “the perpetuation of racial entitlement.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Congressman John Lewis, who was one of hundreds beaten during Bloody Sunday, gave several examples in a recent Washington Post op-ed that demonstrate how much Section 5 is still needed.

He reminds us that in 2008, the city legislature in Calera, a city in Shelby County, Ala., in disregard of Section 5, redrew the boundaries to dilute the voting power of black citizens, resulting in the defeat of Ernest Montgomery, the city’s only black councilman.  

During last year’s presidential campaign, the Justice Department blocked discriminatory voting changes in South Carolina and Texas that would have disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of minority voters. In ruling against South Carolina’s onerous new voter ID law, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates wrote, “One cannot doubt the vital function that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has played here.”

A decision by the justices is expected in June. Too many Americans have fought and died for the precious right to vote. The Supreme Court must not turn back the clock.  Keep Section 5 Alive!

Marc Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League.