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For years, Augusta, Georgia, has held its local elections in November, when turnout is high. But last year, state Republicans changed the election date to July, when far fewer blacks make it to the polls.  

The effort was blocked under the Voting Rights Act (VRA) by the federal government, which cited the harm that the change would do to minorities. But now that the Supreme Court has badly weakened the landmark civil rights law, the move looks to be back on. The city’s African-Americans say they know what’s behind it.

“It’s a maneuver to suppress our voting participation,” Dr. Charles Smith, the president of Augusta’s NACCP branch, told msnbc.

The dispute is flaring at a time when Georgia, long deep-red, is becoming increasingly politically competitive, and Democrats have nominated two candidates with famous names for high-profile statewide races next year.

Voting rights experts say the events in Augusta may be a sign of what’s to come—or even of what’s already happening. In June, the Supreme Court invalidated Section 5 of the VRA, which had required certain jurisdictions, mostly in the south, to submit election changes to the federal government to ensure they didn’t harm minority voters. Since then, harsh voting restrictions put in place by several southern states have generated national news coverage—Texas’ voter ID law and North Carolina’s sweeping voting bill most prominent among them. But most of the changes stopped by Section 5 weren’t statewide laws. Instead, they were measures adopted at the local or county level.

“It’s school boards, and county commissions, and city councils, and water districts, and police juries,” Julie Fernandes, a former top voting-rights official at the Justice Department, said last week at apanel on voting rights. “It’s all the stuff that really, really, really matters to folks all over the country, where they live.”

So it’s no surprise that since the high court’s ruling, smaller jurisdictions from Georgia to Arizona are moving to change election rules in ways that undermine hard-won minority political power. Donita Judge, a staff attorney with the Advancement Project, a civil-rights organization, said these kind of local election changes deserve more focused attention.

“In many ways, those type of elections are the ones that really impact you day-to-day,” Judge told msnbc. “We have to keep our eyes on those areas also.”

In Augusta, a city with a troubled history of race bias in elections, conservatives reached back over a century to unearth a tactic that was used to keep blacks from the polls during Jim Crow: changing the date of elections.

Last year, Rep. Barbara Sims, a Republican who represents the area, pushed a law through Georgia’s GOP-controlled legislature that applied only to Augusta. Against the clear wishes of the city council, the law moved the city’s elections for mayor and city council from the day of the general election in November to the day of the primaries in July.

Sims said at the time the goal was to establish uniformity with other non-partisan local elections in the state, which had been moved to July under previous legislation that applied only to counties, not cities.

But local Democrats and minorities saw the law as a bid to lower turnout among blacks, who usually vote in much higher numbers in November general elections, which tend to have a high profile, than they do in less-publicized primaries.

That figures to be particularly true next year, when two highly anticipated statewide races are likely to draw black voters to the polls in the fall. Jimmy Carter’s grandson, Jason Carter, is challenging the incumbent Republican governor, Nathan Deal. And Michelle Nunn, the daughter of longtime Georgia senator Sam Nunn, is running for an open U.S. Senate seat that could help determine control of the chamber. Adding to the intensity of the partisan conflict, there’s growing talk that, as with Texas, demographic trends could slowly be turning Georgia blue.

A close look at turnout numbers bears out the concern that the change in Augusta will hurt minorities. Seventy-five percent of Augusta blacks voted in the November 2012 general election, while just 33% did so in the July primaries. By comparison, 73% of whites voted in November, and 43% voted in July, according to U.S. Justice Department figures. 2010 showed a similar pattern. In other words, moving the election from November to July would likely lead to a sharp decline in voting among both blacks and whites—in itself an argument against the change—but the drop-off would be bigger among blacks.

Turnout rates are often the key factor in election results in Augusta, where blacks make up a slim majority of the population. If black and white turnout is roughly equal, as it tends to be in November, black and black-supported candidates can win. If whites turn out at a higher rate, as they usually do in July, white conservative candidates get a major boost.

Among the candidates likely to be harmed by the election change is state Sen. Hardie Davis, an African-American Democrat running for mayor.

Citing those turnout numbers, the Justice Department blocked the change last December under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, finding that it would reduce the political power of Augusta’s blacks. 

“Although the change affects only Augusta-Richmond, it does not appear to have been requested by local citizens or officials,” a Justice Department official wrote in a letter to Georgia officials. “There is no evidence that the legislation’s sponsors informed, much less sought the views of the local delegation, minority legislators, or local officials about the change at any point.”

This wasn’t the first time the Feds had stepped in to block changes that they concluded would hurt Augusta’s black citizens. As the Justice Department noted, there was even a previous effort in Augusta to move the election from November to July, blocked by DoJ in 1989.

But then came the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. Deciding that the South had made enough progress on race relations since the 1960s, the court declared the formula behind Section 5 unconstitutional, neutering the provision unless Congress acts.

That led the office of Georgia’s attorney general to conclude that the move to July could go forward. The secretary of state still needs to rule on the issue, and lawsuits are expected whatever the outcome. But it currently looks more likely than not that the election will be moved.

If it is, Augusta would join a growing list of places where conservatives have taken advantage of the Shelby County ruling to institute changes that diminish the political influence of local blacks and Hispanics.

As msnbc reported last monthShelby gave a key boost to a group of white conservatives in Beaumont, Texas, who have been pushing to oust the black majority of the local school board. Not far away in the city of Pasadena, just east of Houston, Shelby also emboldened conservatives to pass a voter initiative this month that changes the way council districts are drawn up, likely reducing the council’s Hispanic representation. Galveston County, also in southeast Texas, seized on Shelby to push forward in August with a plan that would reduce the number of minority justices of the peace, a version of which had been blocked under Section 5 last year. And Arizona is now moving forward with a plan to add two at-large members to the district community college board for Maricopa County, which had been blocked under Section 5 because it would dilute minority representation on the board.

Those cases may just be the tip of the iceberg. Without Section 5’s preclearance requirement, there’s no longer an effective way for national voting-rights advocates and the federal government to find out about ground-level changes.

“We, and I’m sure the Department of Justice as well, are all trying to figure out how we’re going to learn about those kinds of changes at the local level now,” Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU’s voting-rights project, told msnbc. “I just have a hard time believing this is the only thing happening out there. But right now we don’t know.”

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) — who was the youngest speaker during the March on Washington in 1963 — delivered a passionate address about the importance of protecting voting rights at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial fifty years later, as thousands gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the historic event on Saturday.

“When I stood here 50 years ago, I said one man, one vote is the African cry. It is ours, too. it must be ours,” he began, before connecting the demands of 1963 to today’s struggles. “Almost 50 years ago, I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Alabama, for the right to vote. I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us!”

LEWIS: You cannot stand by. You cannot sit down. You have to stand up, speak up, speak out and get in the way. Make some noise. The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It’s the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democratic society and we’ve got to use it. Back in 1963 we didn’t have a cellular telephone, iPad, iPod, but we used what we had to bring about a non-violent revolution. And I said to all of the young people, you must get out there and push and pull and make America what America should be for all of us. We must say to the Congress, ‘Fix the Voting Rights Act’

Watch it:

Since the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act that allowed the federal government to decide if voting changes in states with histories of disenfranchisement are discriminatory, at least six states have renewed efforts to pass voter ID measures, redistricting maps that could divide and weaken minority voting blocks, and other voter suppression measures.

North Carolina became the first to enact what some are describing as “the worst voter suppression law” in the country. The measure mandates strict voter ID to cast a ballot, reduces the number of early voting days by a week, eliminates same-day voter registration during the early voting period, eliminates flexibility in opening early voting sites at different hours within a county and ends pre-registration for 16 and 17 year olds, among other changes.

Earlier on Saturday, Attorney General Eric Holder, whose department is considering a challenge to the law, said equal access to the ballot box is a key part of advancing “our nation’s quest for justice.” “This morning, we affirm that this struggle must, and will, go on in the cause of our nation’s quest for justice – until every eligible American has the chance to exercise his or her right to vote, unencumbered by discriminatory or unneeded procedures, rules, or practices,” he said. The Justice Department is suing to stop Texas’ restrictive voter ID law and is also seeking a declaration from the court that the state’s legislative and congressional maps were redrawn specifically to hurt minority voting power.

“So hang in there, keep the faith,” Lewis extolled. “I got arrested 40 times during the ’60s, beaten, bloodied and unconscious. I’m not tired, I’m not weary. I’m not prepared to sit down and give up. I am ready to fight and continue to fight, and you must fight.”

h/t: Igor Volsky at Think Progress Justice

Justice Department Texas VRA Filing

Hank Sanders grew up in segregated, rural southern Alabama and in 1971 moved to Selma—the birthplace of the Voting Rights Act. Before the VRA, only 393 of the 15,000 black voting-age residents in Dallas County, where Selma is located, were registered to vote. Less than a year later, after federal registrars arrived in August 1965, more than 10,000 black voters had been added to the rolls. Sanders experienced firsthand how the VRA transformed Selma and the rest of the country. In 1983, he became the first African-American state senator from the Alabama Black Belt since Reconstruction, representing a new majority-black district created by the VRA. 

Thirty years later, Sanders watched in disbelief this June as the Supreme Court overturned the centerpiece of the VRA in Shelby County v. Holder. “It’s the most destructive Supreme Court decision in my lifetime,” Sanders said. “It reverses the very foundation of all the progress that we have made.” Reactions in Selma, he said, “ranged from shock to resignation.” 

The Court’s conservative majority struck down Section 4 of the law, which determines how states are covered under Section 5—the vital provision that requires states with the worst history of racial discrimination in voting, dating back to the 1960s and ’70s, to clear electoral changes with the federal government. Without Section 4, there’s no Section 5. The most effective provision of the country’s most important civil rights law is now a ghost unless Congress resurrects it. 

“We have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in his dissent on the Defense of Marriage Act. Yet that reasoning didn’t stop Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts from gutting the VRA, which has been overwhelmingly reauthorized four times by Congress (1970, 1975, 1982, 2006) and signed by four Republican presidents (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush). “The Voting Rights Act became one of the most consequential, efficacious, and amply justified exercises of federal legislative power in our Nation’s history,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her fiery dissent. 

The Roberts majority struck down Section 4 for violating the “‘fundamental principle of equal sovereignty’ among the States,” an argument with roots in Southern segregationist opposition to Reconstruction. (In a biting rebuke, Judge Richard Posner, the pre-eminent legal theorist at the University of Chicago, wrote that “there is no such principle” of constitutional law and that “the opinion rests on air.”) The Roberts decision ignored 250 years of slavery in America, nearly 100 years of Jim Crow and fifty years of persistent attempts to subvert the VRA. The Justice Department blocked 1,116 discriminatory voting changes from taking effect under Section 5 from 1965 to 2004 and objected to thirty-seven electoral proposals after Congress reauthorized the law in 2006. “The Supreme Court didn’t recognize the degree to which voter suppression is still a problem around the country,” President Obama, visiting Senegal, said following the decision. 

Freed from Section 5, the states of the Old Confederacy will dust off the pre-1965 playbook, passing onerous new voting restrictions that can be challenged only through a preliminary injunction or after years of lengthy litigation, often in hostile Southern courts, with the burden of proof now on those facing discrimination rather than on those who discriminate. “Without Section 5, all kinds of things will be passed to limit the right to vote,” says Sanders. “I can’t anticipate all the creativity we will run into.” Immediately after the decision, five Southern states—Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia—rushed to implement new voter-ID laws that disproportionately affect young and minority voters. Voting changes found to be discriminatory by a federal court last year—like the Texas voter-ID law—will go into effect. (“Eric Holder can no longer deny #VoterID in #Texas,” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott tweeted the morning of the decision.) Beyond voter ID, states like North Carolina are close to drastically cutting early voting and eliminating same-day registration. According to the Advancement Project, a Washington civil rights organization, “Eleven out of the 15 states covered by Section 5 enacted, or are pursuing, restrictive voting laws this year.” 

It remains to be seen whether a Congress that can scarcely do more than name post offices is capable of rewriting the country’s most important civil rights law. The chairs of the Senate and House Judiciary committees have pledged to hold hearings soon, and prominent Republicans like James Sensenbrenner, Eric Cantor and Chuck Grassley have expressed openness to a legislative fix. The GOP caucus is whiter, more conservative and more Southern than it was during the last reauthorization, although opposition to a new VRA could prove disastrous for a party now embarking, at least rhetorically, on a well-publicized “rebranding.” Nancy Pelosi has suggested a name for the new law, after the man who nearly died marching in Selma for voting rights: the John Lewis Voting Rights Act [see Berman, “John Lewis’s Long Fight for Voting Rights,” June 24/July 1]. 

The VRA decision could produce a significant backlash among minority voters, just as the voter suppression attempts of 2012 spurred black turnout, which surpassed white turnout for the first time in US history. In much the same way that the VRA’s passage in 1965 spurred counter-mobilization drives by the likes of George Wallace, which registered hundreds of thousands of conservative white voters in the 1960s, so too could the loss of Section 5 motivate a new wave of minority voting activism. “The election of 2012 put voting rights back on the map, because people saw the extent to which politicians would go to suppress the vote,” says Browne-Dianis. “This decision is going to take it to the next level. People now get that it’s not only these state legislatures, but it’s the courts that are rolling back voting rights. Many people feel like, ‘It’s not going to happen on our watch.’”

h/t: The Nation 

VRA preclearance requirements map. 


The Robert’s Court just dealt a hostile and destructive blow to democracy. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has stood as perhaps the greatest triumph for democracy in modern times. Prior to the passage of the VRA of 1965, many states routinely, and blatantly discriminated against voting registration of African Americans. As just one example, in Dallas Country Alabama—home to Selma and where the Bloody Sunday march for voting rights began—of 15,000 eligible black voters in 1965, only 338 were registered. Devious methods were employed throughout the South, and some other geographical areas, that were designed to obstruct blacks from registering.It wasn’t until after the bill became law that the percentage of black Americans seeking to register and vote became effectively protected by federal law. As decades went by black Americans voted in greater numbers and the number of political offices held by blacks exponentially increased.The VRA of 1965 had sunset provisions and yet was reauthorized by Congress each time it came up for renewal—most recently in 2006 by a huge margin.In recent years, the Republicans, seeing the demographics shifting toward more Democratic or progressive electorates, have sought to game the system through an abundant use of voting restrictions that were outside of the law—reducing voter hours, photo IDs, and more.

Now the right wing Robert’s Court has eviscerated the most effective law to ensure fair voting. As a clear example of how our system desperately needs federal oversight, consider that the current House of Representatives has 234 Republicans versus 201 Democrats. This is in spite of the fact that 1.5 million more Democratic votes were cast for Democratic House candidates than for Republican House candidates in 2012.In spite of the court’s suggestion that Congress revisit the jurisdictions that were part of section 4 (Alabama among them), the current Congress cannot even pass the simplest legislation. This dooms the system, and the Robert’s Court knows it.By the way, the case was brought to the Supreme Court by Shelby County Alabama, in Shelby County v. Holder. Surprised?

Bad news for Voting Rights supporters. 

Expect at least 1 of the 3 major remaining cases to be announced tomorrow. Which one will it be? Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, DOMA, or Prop 8? 

Also, there will most likely be another SCOTUS day added on (most likely Thursday). 

On March 7, 1965, John Lewis threw an apple, an orange, a toothbrush, some toothpaste and two books into his backpack, and prepared to lead a fifty-four-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The impromptu march was organized to call national attention to the disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the South and to protest the death of a young civil rights activist shot by police during a demonstration in a neighboring town. 

Lewis’s group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), had been trying to register voters in Selma since 1963. They hadn’t gotten very far. At the time of the march, only 383 of the 15,000 black residents in Selma’s Dallas County were registered to vote. At 25, Lewis had already been arrested twenty times by white segregationists and badly beaten during Freedom Rides in South Carolina and Montgomery. 

On an overcast Sunday afternoon, Lewis and Hosea Williams, a top aide to Martin Luther King Jr., led some 600 local residents marching in two single-file lines. The streets of downtown Selma were eerily quiet. “There was no singing, no shouting—just the sound of scuffling feet,” Lewis wrote in his memoir. “There was something holy about it, as if we were walking down a sacred path. It reminded me of Gandhi’s march to the sea.” Lewis thought he would be arrested, but he had no idea that the ensuing events would dramatically alter the arc of American history. 

As they crossed the Alabama River on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, Alabama state troopers descended on the marchers with batons and bullwhips; some demonstrators were trampled by policemen on horseback, and the air was choked with tear gas. Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull from a clubbing, thought he was going to die. That evening, the prime-time network news played extensive footage of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” Those scenes “struck with the force of instant historical icon,” wrote historian Taylor Branch. 

Eight days later, President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act before a joint session of Congress. “It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country,” Johnson said. On August 6, 1965, a hundred years after the end of the Civil War, the VRA became law. It quickly became known as the most important piece of civil rights legislation and one of the most consequential laws ever passed by Congress. The VRA led to the abolition of literacy tests and poll taxes; made possible the registration of millions of minority voters by replacing segregationist registrars with federal examiners; forced states with a history of voting discrimination to clear electoral changes with the federal government; and laid the foundation for generations of minority elected officials, including Barack Obama. Lewis has the pen LBJ gave him after signing the VRA framed in his Atlanta home and a bust of the thirty-sixth president in his Washington office. “When Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act,” Lewis said on a recent trip to Alabama, “he helped free and liberate all of us.” 

Lewis, now a thirteen-term congressman from Atlanta, was a leading participant in nearly all of the pivotal events of the civil rights movement—the Nashville sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, the Mississippi Freedom Summer. But his signature achievement is the VRA. Of all the surviving leaders of the movement, Lewis is most responsible for its passage and its overwhelming reauthorization four times by Congress. He is the soul of the voting rights movement and its most eloquent advocate. So many of his comrades from the civil rights years have died or drifted away, but Lewis remains as committed as ever to the fight to protect the right to vote. 
”I feel like it’s part of my calling,” he says. 

On March 3, Lewis returned to Selma for the forty-eighth anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Thirty members of Congress accompanied him—part of a pilgrimage to Alabama that Lewis has led since 2000—along with Vice President Joseph Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Lewis locked arms with Biden and Luci Baines Johnson, LBJ’s youngest daughter, and once again marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Fifteen thousand people followed, some of whom would continue all the way to Montgomery. “Woke up this morning with my mind/ stayed on freedom,” activists sang as they climbed the bridge. At the top, high above the Alabama River, Lewis grabbed a bullhorn and retold the story of Bloody Sunday. “You have to tell the story over and over again to educate people,” Lewis told me. “It is my obligation to do what I can to complete what we started many, many years ago,” he said in Selma. 

Every return to Selma is meaningful for Lewis, but this trip had special significance. Just four days before, Lewis had sat inside the Supreme Court as the justices heard a challenge to Section 5 of the VRA, which compels parts or all of sixteen states with a history of racial discrimination in voting, primarily in the South, to clear election-related changes with the federal government. (A decision in that case, Shelby County v. Holder, is expected at the end of June.) Lewis calls Section 5 the “heart and soul” of the law, and was deeply disturbed by the arguments from the Court’s conservative justices. “It appeared to me that several members of the Court didn’t have a sense of the history, what brought us to this point, and not just the legislative history and how it came about,” Lewis said afterward in his congressional office, which is decorated with iconic photographs of the civil rights movement. “They seemed to be somewhat indifferent to why people fought so hard and so long to get the act passed in the first place. And they didn’t see the need.” 

Justice Antonin Scalia said the law represented a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested that the federal government is discriminating against states like Alabama more than Alabama is discriminating against its own citizens. Chief Justice John Roberts implied that Massachusetts has a bigger problem with voting discrimination than Mississippi. Clarence Thomas, who as is customary didn’t speak, had already declared Section 5 unconstitutional in a previous decision. 

Lewis called Scalia’s statement “shocking and unbelievable” and said he almost cried when he heard it. “So what happened to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments?” he asked, shaking his head. “What happened to the whole struggle to make it possible in the twentieth century, and now the twenty-first, for every person to be able to cast a free and open vote?” 

Forty-eight years after Bloody Sunday, Lewis is once again in the fight of his life, with conservative officeholders resurrecting voter suppression methods not seen since the 1960s and Supreme Court justices asserting that the federal efforts to combat historic discrimination in voting—reforms that Lewis nearly died to win—are no longer needed. In January, he filed an amicus brief with the Court opposing the Shelby County challenge. It noted “the high price many paid for the enactment of the Voting Rights Act and the still higher cost we might yet bear if we prematurely discard one of the most vital tools of our democracy.” 

Lewis grew up a hundred miles southeast of Selma, in the rural Alabama Black Belt near Troy. He was the third of ten kids; his parents farmed cotton, corn and peanuts. Their farmhouse had no electricity, running water or insulation. He was a bookish, devout child who wore ties and preached to his chickens, sneaking away from the fields to attend school. His life changed when, at 15, he heard about the bus boycott in Montgomery in 1955 and listened to Martin Luther King Jr. (who quickly became his idol) preaching on the radio. 

While at college in Nashville, Lewis played an instrumental role in the sit-ins and Freedom Rides that hastened the demise of Jim Crow. “I was like a soldier in a nonviolent army,” he says. He soon became the movement’s field commander, assuming chairmanship of SNCC in 1963. “John was probably the most committed person I’ve ever met,” says South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, who met Lewis at a SNCC conference in 1960. A lifelong adherent of peaceful resistance, Lewis saw his mission as “bringing the Gandhian way into the belly of the Black Belt.” 

Lewis became head of the Voter Education Project in 1970, which took the lead in registering black voters in the South after the VRA’s passage. The VEP registered 2 million voters from 1970 to 1977, including Lewis’s mother and father. The group distributed posters that read: “Hands that pick cotton…can now pick our elected officials.” In 1986, Lewis won election to the US House from Atlanta, defeating his close friend Julian Bond. “Vote for the tugboat, not the showboat” was one of his slogans. Lewis became known as “the conscience of Congress,” with an unmatched stature on civil rights. “I don’t think I’ve seen anybody in the movement that carries the moral cachet that John Lewis has,” says Clyburn. 

Lewis initially endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2008, based on their close friendship, but viewed Obama’s election as a culmination of what he and so many others had put their lives on the line for. “Because of what you did, Barack Obama is the president of the United States,” Lewis said in Selma following Obama’s 2008 victory, on the forty-fourth anniversary of Bloody Sunday. 

Lewis knew the president would be attacked because of his race, but the full-scale assault on voting rights that followed the 2010 midterm elections caught him and other movement veterans off-guard. More than a dozen states, including critical battlegrounds like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, adopted new laws to restrict access to the ballot—all of which disproportionately affected communities of color. “I was naïve to think voting rights were untouchable,” says Bond, former chair of the NAACP. “I didn’t dream that Republicans would be as bold and as racist as they are.” 

Lewis saw the restrictions as an obvious ploy to suppress the power of the young and minority voters who formed the core of Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant” in 2008. “It was a deliberate, well-greased and organized attempt to stop this progress,” he says. “They saw all these people getting registered as a threat to power.” 

In July 2011, when few were paying attention to the issue, Lewis delivered an impassioned speech on the House floor about the right to vote. “Voting rights are under attack in America,” Lewis told the nearly empty chamber in his deep baritone. “There’s a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process.” He called voter-ID laws a poll tax—a year before Attorney General Holder would make the same comparison—and recalled how, before passage of the VRA, blacks who attempted to register in the South were required to guess the number of bubbles in a bar of soap or the number of jellybeans in a jar. “We must not step backward to another dark period in our history,” Lewis warned. “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society.” To combat voter suppression, Lewis sponsored the Voter Empowerment Act, which would add millions of voters to the rolls and increase turnout by modernizing registration, mandating early voting and adopting Election Day registration. 

On the last night of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, which took place just twenty-five miles from where Lewis was beaten 
as a Freedom Rider in Rock Hill, South Carolina, he implored the faithful to “march to the polls like never, ever before.” By that time, civil rights activists, the Obama administration and the judiciary had heeded his warning on voting rights, as ten major restrictive laws were blocked in court under the VRA and federal and state protections. “The election of 2012,” Lewis said on MSNBC, “dramatized…the need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.” 

Lewis spent the pivotal Sunday before the election campaigning in Ohio for Obama. The Ohio GOP had tried to prevent early voting three days before the election, but the Obama campaign had successfully sued to reinstate those days. As he approached the Hamilton County Board of Elections in Cincinnati, Lewis saw the line of voters stretching for nearly a mile around city blocks, with hundreds waiting for hours in the damp cold. “This is very, very moving,” Lewis said as he walked the line. “This is living testimony that people who tried to make it hard and difficult and who put up stumbling blocks and roadblocks—it’s just not working.” 

The successful resistance to voter suppression may be the most important story of the 2012 election. Compared with 2008, 1.7 million more blacks, 1.4 million more Hispanics and 550,000 more Asians went to the polls, versus 2 million fewer whites. The turnout rate among black voters exceeded that of whites for the first time on record, according to the Census Bureau. While the turnout rate fell among nearly every demographic group, the largest increase came from blacks 65 and over. Those, like Lewis, who had lived through the days when merely trying to register could get you killed were the people most determined to defend their rights last year. 

Yet Lewis viewed Obama’s re-election as only a temporary victory, given the challenge to Section 5 before the Supreme Court. The mood in Selma during this year’s anniversary of Bloody Sunday was more somber than celebratory. “Here we are, forty-eight years after all you did, and we’re still fighting?” Biden said in Selma. “In 2011, ‘12 and ‘13? We were able to beat back most of those attempts in the election of 2012, but that doesn’t mean it’s over.” After Holder cited the continued importance of Section 5 in combating discrimination, the crowd at the foot of the bridge chanted, in what had to be a first, “Section 5! Section 5!”

“When it comes to voting rights,” says Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, “you realize the past isn’t the past.”

* * *

On May 20, 1961, Lewis and two dozen Freedom Riders traveling through the South to desegregate interstate bus travel were assaulted by a frenzied mob at the Greyhound station in Montgomery. Lewis was struck over the head with a Coca-Cola crate and left lying unconscious in a pool of blood. The Freedom Riders sought refuge at the First Baptist Church, disguising themselves as members of the choir to avoid police scrutiny. Three thousand white supremacists surrounded the church the next night and hurled Molotov cocktails through the stained-glass windows. “That night was unbelievable,” Lewis recalls. “I thought some of us would die.” After tortured deliberation, President John Kennedy sent in federal marshals to escort the Freedom Riders to safety.

This past March 2, when Lewis returned to First Baptist Church with 200 guests, Chief Kevin Murphy, head of the Montgomery Police Department, unexpectedly apologized to him. “We enforced unjust laws,” Murphy said. It was the first apology Lewis had ever received from a law enforcement official, after forty arrests and countless near-death experiences. They embraced, as the congregation cheered and wept, and Murphy gave Lewis his badge. “Chief Murphy, my brother, 
I accept your apology,” Lewis responded. “I don’t think I’m worthy of this.” Then he joked, “Actually, do you think I could get another?” Lewis kept the badge in his pocket for days. “I want to say to all of you here, it shows the power of love, the power of peace, the power of nonviolence,” he said. 

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The Montgomery Advertiser featured Murphy’s apology on its front page. Next to it, however, was a story about how, if the Supreme Court overturns Section 5, Republicans would likely dismantle the majority-black legislative districts protected under the act, which illustrates the South’s continuing racial divide. Obama, the article noted, won 95 percent of the black vote in Alabama last year, but only 15 percent of the white vote. “Whites won’t vote for blacks in Alabama,” said State Senator Hank Sanders of Selma. “That’s the state of race relations.” 

Indeed, despite powerful moments of reconciliation, the South is far from a post-racial utopia. Six of the nine states fully covered by Section 5, all in the South, passed new voting restrictions after the 2010 election. “Section 5,” write law professors Christopher Elmendorf and Douglas Spencer, “is remarkably well tailored to the geography of anti-black prejudice.” Of the ten states where anti-black stereotypes are most common, based on data from the National Annenberg Election Survey, six in the South are subject to Section 5. Racially polarized voting and “explicit anti-black attitudes,” according to an AP survey, have increased since 2008. Arkansas and Virginia have passed strict new voter-ID laws this year, while North Carolina is considering a slew of draconian restrictions. 

“Places like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, they forget recent history,” Lewis said. “We’re not talking about something that took place a hundred years ago, but a few short years ago. And some of it is still going on today. And if you get rid of Section 5 of the VRA, many of these places, whether it be state, county or town, will slip back into the habits of the past.” 

Against this backdrop, it’s shocking that the Supreme Court appears to be leaning toward overturning the centerpiece of the country’s most important civil rights law. Last year, Lewis found out that his great-great-grandfather had registered and voted after becoming an emancipated slave following the Civil War, during Reconstruction—something that Lewis could not do until 100 years later, after the passage of the VRA. He wept when he heard the news. It underscored how delicate the right to vote has been throughout American history. If the Court upholds Section 5, as it has in four prior opinions, Lewis’s legacy will be cemented. And if the Court eviscerates it, Lewis’s voice will be needed as never before.

H/T: Ari Berman at The Nation

The topic of discussion on Sandy Rios’ American Family Radio program Wednesday was diversity among federal judicial nominees. The Washington Post published a story over the weekend detailing President Obama’s largely successful effort to appoint more women, people of color and openly LGBT people to federal judgeships. The voice of dissent in the article was that of the Committee for Justice’s Curt Levey, who told the Post that the White House was “lowering their standards” in nominating nonwhite judges. So naturally, Rios invited Levey on as a guest and explained to him why she disapproves of President Obama’s diverse judicial nominations.

In particular, Rios disapproves of Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, respectively the third and fourth women ever to sit on the high court. Sotomayor and Kagan, Rios says, have been forgetting their place and behaving “rudely,” “interrupting” and “speaking inappropriately” to, of all people, Justice Antonin Scalia.

While Levey correctly notes that “Scalia can give it out as well as take it,” he agrees with Rios that Sotomayor, the Supreme Court’s first Latina justice, “has occasionally, at least, stepped over the line.” In particular, he says Sotomayor – who he once accused of supporting “violent Puerto Rican terrorists” — “sort of lost it” during arguments on the Voting Rights Act, when she contradicted Scalia’s stunning assertion that the law represents a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”

In fact, while Scalia’s bombast provoked audible gasps in the hearing room, Sotomayor waited several minutes before calmly asking the attorney challenging the Voting Rights Act, “Do you think that the right to vote is a racial entitlement in Section 5?”

h/t: Miranda Blue at RWW

WASHINGTON, DC — There were audible gasps in the Supreme Court’s lawyer’s lounge, where audio of the oral argument is pumped in for members of the Supreme Court bar, when Justice Antonin Scalia offered his assessment of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. He called it a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”

The comment came as part of a larger riff on a comment Scalia made the last time the landmark voting law was before the justices. Noting the fact that the Voting Rights Act reauthorization passed 98-0 when it was before the Senate in 2006, Scalia claimed four years ago that this unopposed vote actually undermines the law: “The Israeli supreme court, the Sanhedrin, used to have a rule that if the death penalty was pronounced unanimously, it was invalid, because there must be something wrong there.”

h/t: Think Progress Justice

WASHINGTON — The most potent weapon in fighting discrimination at the ballot box comes before the Supreme Court in a case that weighs the nation’s enormous progress in civil rights against the need to continue to protect minority voters.

The justices are hearing arguments Wednesday in a challenge to the part of the Voting Rights Act that forces places with a history of discrimination, mainly in the Deep South, to get approval before they make any change in the way elections are held.

The lawsuit from Shelby County, Ala., near Birmingham, says the “dire local conditions” that once justified strict federal oversight of elections no longer exist.

The Obama administration and civil rights groups acknowledge the progress, but also argue that Congress was justified in maintaining the advance approval, or preclearance, provision when the law was last renewed in 2006.

Last week, President Barack Obama weighed in on behalf of the law in a radio interview with SiriusXM host Joe Madison. “It would be hard for us to catch those things up front to make sure that elections are done in an equitable way” if the need for advance approval from the Justice Department or federal judges in Washington were stripped away, Obama said.

Just last year, federal judges in Washington refused to sign off on two separate Texas plans to institute a tough photo identification law for voters and redistricting plans for the state’s congressional delegation and Legislature. Also, South Carolina’s plan to put in place its own voter ID law was delayed beyond the 2012 election and then allowed to take effect only after the state carved out an exception for some people who lack photo identification.

Opponents say those examples should not be enough to save the measure. Advance approval is strong medicine that has been upheld in the past as an emergency response to longstanding discrimination, lawyer Bert Rein said in his brief for Shelby County.

Congress overstepped its authority when it renewed the law and its formula that relied on 40-year-old data, without taking account of dramatic increases in the voter registration and participation by minorities, or of problems in places not covered by the law, Rein said.

The advance approval was adopted in the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to give federal officials a way to get ahead of persistent efforts to keep blacks from voting.

The provision was a huge success, and Congress periodically has renewed it over the years. The most recent time was in 2006, when a Republican-led Congress overwhelmingly approved and President George W. Bush signed a 25-year extension.

H/T: Huffington Post

We do not have to guess what the states currently subject to a key provision of the Voting Rights Act will do if the Supreme Court grants their wish to have that provision declared unconstitutional — top Republicans in those states have already told us. In a brief filed last August, Republican attorneys general from six of the states covered, at least in part, by Section 5 of the Voting Right Act complained that this landmark legislation is all that stands between them and implementing a common method of disenfranchising minority voters. Two of those states, South Carolina and Texas, admit that the Voting Rights Act stopped them from implementing a voter suppression law their governors already signed.

Of course, the voter suppression law at issue here are so-called “voter ID” provisions that require voters to present photo ID at the polls. Their supporters clam publicly that these laws are needed to prevent voter fraud at the polls, but this claim is absurd. Voters are more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit in-person voter fraud. A study of Wisconsin voters found that just 0.00023 percent of votes are the product of such fraud.

What these laws do accomplish is disenfranchisement; even conservative estimates suggest that they prevent 2 to 3 percent of registered voters from casting a ballot. This voter disenfranchisement is particularly pronounced among low-income voters, students and — a fact that is particularly salient for any discussion of the Voting Rights Act — racial minorities.

The Voting Rights Act, of course, protects against laws that expose minority voters to greater burdens than other voters. Section 5, the provision that the Supreme Court will consider tomorrow, requires parts of the country that have historically engaged in voter suppression to “pre-clear” any new voting laws with the Justice Department or a federal court in DC to make sure they do not impose racial burdens. Thus, voter suppression laws such as voter ID can be blocked before an election is held, preventing officials from being elected to office by an electorate that has been unlawfully culled of minority voters.

Lest there be any doubt, voter ID laws are just one of many tactics Republican lawmakers have turned to in order to reshape the electorate into something more likely to elect their favored candidates.

As President Lyndon Johnson warned when he originally proposed the Voting Rights Act to Congress, vote suppressors will bring “every device of which human ingenuity is capable” to deny the right to vote. This is why it is so important that Section 5 exist. Advocates of disenfranchisement are smart, nimble and capable of subtlety. The law must have a mechanism to block their efforts from taking effect before an election is held using illegal, vote suppressing procedures.

Indeed, it is deeply distressing that the Supreme Court would consider weakening the Voting Rights Act at the exact moment that Republican lawmakers are engaged in what President Bill Clinton called the most “determined effort to limit the franchise” since Jim Crow. What America needs today is not weaker voting rights. At the very least, we need to keep the protections we already have and expand Section 5′s coverage to include many Republican-controlled states that are not currently subject to its rule — an expansion the Voting Rights Act explicitly contemplates under what is known as the “bail-in” provision of the law. The lawmakers who reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006 could not have anticipated that Republican lawmakers in many states would begin a voter suppression campaign a few years later, but the drafters of the act were wise to include a provision that enables it to adapt to these circumstances.

h/t: Ian Millhiser at Think Progress

On March 15, 1965, a week after Alabama state troopers brutally attacked civil rights protesters in Selma, President Lyndon Johnson delivered a stirring speech to a joint session of Congress introducing a bill to end voter discrimination against blacks.

The law that it gave birth to, the Voting Rights Act, now hangs in the balance, with oral arguments next week before the Supreme Court. Five conservative justices are skeptical that a centerpiece of the nearly-half-century-old law is constitutional.

“I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy,” Johnson said that night, nearly half a century ago. “A century has passed, more than a hundred years, since equality was promised. And yet the Negro is not equal. A century has passed since the day of promise. And the promise is unkept. The time of justice has now come.”

Days later, he submitted legislation to Congress aimed at taking stringent, unprecedented steps to end voter discrimination and disenfranchisement. As Congress took it up, opponents rebelled.

“I said it was worse than the Thaddeus Stevens legislation during Reconstruction, sir, and it is,” said Leander Perez, a pro-segregation Louisianan, at a subsequent Senate hearing. “It is the most nefarious — it is inconceivable that Americans would do that to Americans.”

Despite its intensity, the opposition failed. The Voting Rights Act overwhelmingly passed Congress that summer and was signed into law by Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965. A key part of the law, Section 5, required a slew of state and local governments with a history of voter discrimination to receive preclearance from the Justice Department before changing their voting laws. Today it is widely credited for helping minority voters participate equally in elections. The law played a key role in ending voter suppression tactics such as literacy tests and poll taxes.

“After a century of flouting the 15th Amendment, Congress acted to use its powers to protect the right to vote from racial discrimination,” said David Gans of the liberal-leaning Constitutional Accountability Center. “It is now seen as probably the most important federal civil rights law — one that sought to realize the promise of multiracial democracy.”

South Carolina soon led a legal challenge to key portions of the law, including Section 5. Recourse was sought directly from the Supreme Court, bypassing the lower federal courts. The Supreme Court accepted the case.

The solicitor general who defended the law on behalf of the federal government was Thurgood Marshall. Some dozen years earlier Marshall, as chief counsel of the NAACP, had argued and won the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school segregation case. A year after defending the Voting Rights Act, Johnson would name Marshall to the Supreme Court, making him the nation’s first black justice.

“In these states, there has been a policy of overt or covert obstruction with respect to the enforcement of the 15th Amendment [which prohibits voter discrimination],” Marshall said during the 1966 oral argument before the Supreme Court, referring to the states covered by the Section 5 preclearance provision. “Moreover, as a matter of common sense and reasoned judgment, it would be extreme optimism or naivete to assume that in states where there has been long enduring policies of racial discrimination, that even well disposed officials could assure the fair administration of such tests on a local level.”

The legal challenge to the Voting Rights Act in South Carolina v. Katzenbach failed, 8-1. The court proceeded to reaffirm the validity of the law three more times — in 1973, 1980 and 1999. Meanwhile, Congress repeatedly reauthorized it, with Section 5 intact, most recently in in 2006, for a period of 25 additional years.

That monument of history faces its toughest test yet next Wednesday in the Supreme Court.

Lawyers for Alabama’s Shelby County will argue for invalidating Section 5 before the most conservative bench since the law passed. Five justices have signaled their misgivings with that provision, notably Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy in 2009 when the high court ruled in favor of a Texas jurisdiction seeking an exemption from preclearance.

h/t: Sahil Kapur at TPM

Supporters of the Voting Rights Act are painting a bleak picture of what it would mean for the rights of minority voters if the Supreme Court were to strike down the landmark 1965 law’s Section 5, which requires state and local governments with a history of disenfranchising minority voters (i.e. mostly in the south) to receive preclearance from the Justice Department or federal court before changing laws that affect voting.

“Broadly speaking, if we didn’t have Section 5 we would find that minority voters are in many places around the covered jurisdictions will have their ability to equally participate in the political process severely compromised,” Julie Fernandes, a civil rights activist and former deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said this week. “We’ll see a lot more of the diluting tactics that we used to have.”

The Supreme Court hears oral arguments Wednesday in Shelby County v. Holder, the most serious challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Right Acts in the nearly 50 years since its enactment. The liberal-leaning Center For America Progress held a briefing with reporters in advance of the Supreme Court hearing where experts, including Fernandes, made the case for the validity and necessity of Section 5. Nervous that their side will face five very skeptical justices at oral arguments, they described the part of the law as critical to protecting minority voters’ rights.

Fernandes warned that certain states and municipalities would be free to enact laws that dilute the African-American and Latino vote — such as a return to “at-large” elections where all of the voters vote for all of the seats and racially-oriented redistricting in Congress, county commissions, sheriff elections and police juries.

“I think that we will see that African Americans and Latinos in particular, but in some places Native Americans, will just not have equal political power,” she said. Fernandes pointed in particular to Alabama, where the Shelby County case originated, and other southern states.

Texas State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D), also at the CAP briefing, argued that the outcome would be systematic efforts in certain state and local governments to marginalize, disenfranchise and even intimidate minority voters.

“Even for those who do persevere, who register and engage in the process, you’re starting to see an increase in voter purges and secretaries of state taking a more active role in maintaining their voting lists,” he said. “You see the voter intimidation tactics of folks … going into minority communities and intimidating poll workers. … So these are things that I think you’ll see more of.”

Keep the VRA and Section 5!

H/T: Sahil Kapur at TPM

In 2006, Congress voted overwhelmingly to reauthorize key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for another twenty-five years. The legislation passed 390–33 in the House and 98–0 in the Senate. Every top Republican supported the bill. “The Voting Rights Act must continue to exist,” said House Judiciary chair James Sensenbrenner, a conservative Republican, “and exist in its current form.” Civil rights leaders flanked George W. Bush at the signing ceremony.

Seven years later, the bipartisan consensus that supported the VRA for nearly fifty years has collapsed, and conservatives are challenging the law as never before. Last November, three days after a presidential election in which voter suppression played a starring role, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to Section 5 of the VRA, which compels parts or all of sixteen states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to clear election-related changes with the federal government. The case will be heard on February 27. The lawsuit, originating in Shelby County, Alabama, is backed by leading operatives and funders in the conservative movement, along with Republican attorneys general in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas. Shelby County’s brief claims that “Section 5’s federalism cost is too great” and that the statute has “accomplished [its] mission.” 

The current campaign against the VRA is the result of three key factors: a whiter, more Southern, more conservative GOP that has responded to demographic change by trying to suppress an increasingly diverse electorate; a twenty-five-year effort to gut the VRA by conservative intellectuals, who in recent years have received millions of dollars from top right-wing funders, including Charles Koch; and a reactionary Supreme Court that does not support remedies to racial discrimination. 

The push by conservatives to repeal Section 5 comes on the heels of what NAACP president Benjamin Jealous has called “the greatest attacks on voting rights since segregation.” After the 2010 election, GOP officials approved laws in more than a dozen states to restrict the right to vote by requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote, shutting down voter registration drives, curtailing early voting, disenfranchising ex-felons and mandating government-issued photo IDs to cast a ballot—all of which disproportionately target communities of color. The states covered by Section 5 were significantly more likely to pass such laws than those that are not. 

Attorney General Eric Holder has called Section 5 the “keystone of our voting rights,” and the Justice Department and voting rights groups have argued that it is an essential tool for dismantling barriers to the ballot box. “The record compiled by Congress demonstrates that, without the continuation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protections, racial and language minority citizens will be deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote, or will have their votes diluted, undermining the significant gains made by minorities in the last forty years,” Congress stated in reauthorizing the act in 2006. The disappearance of Section 5 would be a devastating setback for voting rights—akin to the way the Citizens United decision eviscerated campaign finance regulation—and would greenlight the kind of voter suppression attempts that proved so unpopular in 2012. 

Overturning Section 5 is in many respects the most important battle in the GOP’s war on voting. As Holder noted in a recent speech, there have been more lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Section 5 over the past two years than during the previous four decades. Section 5 is in the gravest danger at a moment in contemporary history when it’s needed the most. 

The Fifteenth Amendment, which Congress ratified in 1870, states that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Yet it took nearly a century, until the passage of the VRA, for those words to become the enforced law of all the land. “Section 5 was not the first response to the problem, but it was the first effective one, enacted only after case-by-case litigation and less stringent legislative remedies failed,” says a recent brief filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The law led to the abolition of poll taxes and literacy tests; spurred massive voter registration drives; and laid the foundation for generations of minority elected officials. Even conservatives like George Will regard the VRA as “the 20th century’s noblest and most transformative law.” 

It’s not surprising that the most recent challenge originates in Alabama, which, more than any other state, is responsible for the passage of the VRA. LBJ announced the legislation eight days after police brutally beat civil rights activists during the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” protests in Selma. “The Voting Rights Act is Alabama’s gift to our country,” says Debo Adegbile, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Shelby County is a wealthy, white-flight exurb of Birmingham, once regarded as the most segregated city in America and known as “Bombingham” for the frequency of attacks on black citizens at the height of the civil rights struggle. (The Alabama GOP held its 2012 election night “victory party” at a gun range in Shelby County, where attendees fired away while awaiting election returns.) 

Calera, a once-sleepy town from which the lawsuit stems, is fifty-five miles north of Selma. Best known for its Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum, Calera became the fastest-growing city in the state over the past decade, adding new businesses like Walmart and Cracker Barrel off the busy I-65 highway running from Birmingham to Montgomery. Before local elections in 2008, Calera redrew its city boundaries. The black voting-age population had grown from 13 percent in 2004 to 16 percent in 2008, but the new maps eliminated the City Council’s lone majority-black district, represented by Ernest Montgomery since 2004. The city decreased the black voting-age population in Montgomery’s district from 71 to 30 percent by adding three overwhelmingly white subdivisions while failing to include a large surrounding black neighborhood. A day before the election, the Justice Department objected to the change. Calera could have preserved the majority-black district, the city’s demographer told Washington, but the City Council chose not to. Calera held the election in defiance of Justice Department orders, and Montgomery lost by two votes. 

A soft-spoken and civic-minded precision machinist, Montgomery grew up going to segregated schools until junior high, but he didn’t think race was as big an issue in Calera as it was in other parts of the state. That changed in 2008, when he knocked on doors in the lily-white subdivisions of his new district—which he knew well from his time on the city planning commission—and was told by residents that they were supporting his opponent, who’d lived in the town for only three years. When asked why, they couldn’t give him a good reason. Montgomery could come to only one conclusion: “they voted against me because of the color of my skin.” 

Following George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election, Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman embarked on an ambitious effort to court minority voters, particularly African-Americans, apologizing for his party’s “Southern strategy” at the NAACP convention and trying to rebrand the GOP as “the party of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.” But that effort collapsed in the wake of the Bush administration’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, which decisively turned blacks against the GOP, and its failure was codified with the election of Barack Obama, who won 80 percent of the minority vote in 2008. Instead of wooing an ever more diverse electorate, Republicans began looking for new ways to suppress its votes, as became evident following the 2010 election, when GOP state legislators introduced tough new voting restrictions in thirty-eight states. The NAMUDNO and Shelby County lawsuits prefigured this shift. “It’s at those moments when minority communities are poised to exercise their political voice that we see the most intently focused voting discrimination,” says Adegbile. 

But past remains present to a disturbing degree in the South. States and counties with a history of voting discrimination in the 1960s and ’70s are still trying to suppress their growing minority vote today. Six of the nine fully covered states have passed new voting restrictions since 2010, including voter ID laws (Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia), limits on early voting (Georgia) and restrictions on voter registration (Alabama and Texas). But only one-third of noncovered jurisdictions passed similar restrictions during the same period. The worst of the worst actors are still those covered by Section 5. 

It’s certainly true that voter suppression efforts have spread to states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. If anything, though, that’s an argument for expanding the statute, not eliminating it. “It’s a unique concept to say, ‘Well, since you’re not catching everybody, you can’t catch anyone,’” says Anita Earls, a prominent civil rights lawyer and executive director of the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice. 

In last year’s election cycle, the Justice Department under Section 5 opposed voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina, early-voting cutbacks in Florida and redistricting maps in Texas. The federal courts in Washington sided with the DOJ in three of four cases, finding evidence of discriminatory effect and/or purpose, while also blocking South Carolina’s voter ID law for 2012. “One cannot doubt the vital function that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has played here,” Judge Bates wrote during South Carolina’s voter ID trial. “Without the review process under the Voting Rights Act, South Carolina’s voter photo ID law certainly would have been more restrictive.” 

In addition to passing a raft of new voting restrictions, Republicans across the South used their control of state legislatures following the 2010 election to pass redistricting maps that have led to a resegregation of Southern politics, placing as many Democratic lawmakers into as few majority-minority districts as possible as a way to maximize the number of white Republican seats [see Berman, “The GOP’s New Southern Strategy,” February 20, 2012]. Republican leaders say they’re only following the guidelines of Section 5, but in reality they’ve turned the VRA on its head. (Most recently, on Martin Luther King Day, the GOP-controlled Virginia Senate redrew its maps to reduce Democratic seats by diluting black voting strength in at least eight districts.) 

Expanding voting rights in these areas has been shaky at best. “Black voters and elected officials have less influence [in the South] now than at any time since the civil rights era,” says a 2011 report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which points out that only 4.8 percent of Southern black state legislators serve in the majority, compared with 54.4 percent in the rest of the country. Before the 1994 election, 201 of 202 black state legislators belonged to the majority party. Following the 2010 election, only fifteen of 313 did. There are more black elected officials in the South today, but they have far less power. And without Section 5, there would also be far fewer. 

In Alabama, for example, Republicans targeted nearly every white Democrat in the state legislature for extinction but preserved the twenty-seven majority-minority districts in the House (even adding one more) as well as eight in the Senate in order to clear the maps with the feds. (At the time, the head of the Senate Rules Committee, Republican Scott Beason, referred to blacks as “aborigines.”) “If there’s no Section 5, all those majority-black districts are now vulnerable,” says Jim Blacksher, a longtime voting rights lawyer in Birmingham. “And there is no question in anybody’s mind what will happen next.” He calls Section 5 “the most important sea anchor against the ongoing, uninterrupted, virulent white-supremacy culture that still dominates this state.” 

The kind of postracial society that would signal Section 5’s irrelevance isn’t anywhere on the horizon. Following Obama’s re-election, white students at the University of Mississippi yelled racial slurs during an impromptu demonstration. Obama won only 10 percent of the white vote in Mississippi and 15 percent in Alabama. “Overall, Obama won about 46 percent of the white vote outside the South and 27 percent of the white vote in the South,” observes Kevin Drum of Mother Jones

Section 5 is invoked only in the most extreme circumstances and remains an imperfect and underused remedy. From 2010 to 2011, the Justice Department has objected to only twenty-nine of 19,964 submitted voting changes. Localities with a clean record are increasingly “bailing out” from the statute. “More jurisdictions have bailed out in the three years since NAMUDNO than the total number of jurisdictions that had bailed out in the 27 years prior toNAMUDNO,” writes Gerry Hebert, a voting rights lawyer and longtime Justice Department official. “Not a single government that has sought bailout has been turned down.” Adds Sensenbrenner, “Rather than throwing Section 5 out, which allows the people who haven’t cleaned up their act to get out, why not have the people who don’t discriminate anymore utilize the procedure to bail out?” 

h/t: The Nation