Supreme Court guts civil rights era voting act
Two weeks after The University of Alabama commemorated the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down vital parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in a 5-4 decision June 25.
Section 4 of the Act, which declared Southern states had to receive clearance from the U.S. Justice Department or a federal court in Washington, D.C., to draw voting districts, was declared unconstitutional. This section was put in place in order to prevent gerrymandering, or the drawing of districts to favor one party and prevent certain groups – notably black – from voting in the 1960s.
However, Section 5 of the Act, which outlined the actual procedures for Southern states, remained in tact.
Cody Jones, a senior majoring in political science, said he thinks the Supreme Court’s decision will have consequences for other minority groups, such as Hispanics.
“If things stay as they are now, the most immediate effect will be the full implementation of Alabama’s dastardly disenfranchising voter identification law,” Jones said. “I also suspect there will be schemes for voting registrars to begin purging voting polls.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Alabama is enacting a requirement of picture identification to vote starting in 2014. Other states like South Carolina and Texas implemented strict voter ID policies in 2011, but because of Section 5 of the Act, were unable to enforce them.
“In Alabama, the county registrars are appointed by the governor, agriculture commissioner and state auditor – all three are Republicans – so I suspect vote purging to occur in Democratic and swing counties,” Jones said. “As far as long-term outlook, that is worrisome. I suspect our legislature will create multiple devices to impede voting targeted towards poor, working class, and minority voters. It will be like fighting the mythic Hydra: Defeat one voting hurdle and another two will appear in its place.”
Sam Gerard, a junior majoring in political science and history, said he agreed with Jones.
“It will definitely create tougher voting conditions for already fairly disenfranchised groups,” Gerard said. “Anything that come up in the South, minorities like African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, which the laws specifically target, need to be completely ready to let their voice be heard.”
Gerard, who is also president of the UA College Democrats, said he hopes Congress will provide new provision for the Voting Rights Act like the Supreme Court intended.
“If they knew what sort of struggle that civil rights activists took in the 1960s, they would certainly give it consideration that the Supreme Court had but hopefully with a more compliant outcome,” he said.
In addition to the possible gerrymandering, Richard Fording, department chair of political science, said Southern states might see fewer elected officials of minority races.
“What most people don’t realize is that there are lots of ways that decisions about these laws can have significant effects on who votes and who gets elected,” Fording said. “The most obvious example is how districts are drawn. But there are lots of other practices that matter, including the types of identification needed to vote, the location of polling places, the use of run-off elections, the use of at-large election or single-member district election systems and decisions to annex unincorporated areas, just to name a few.”
Fording said black voters, who could be affected by this ruling, would still be able to invalidate any laws passed by states like Alabama through lawsuits, but even that could present its own challenges.
“Filing a lawsuit can be expensive and beyond the expertise of most citizens,” Fording said.
Not everyone was against the Supreme Court’s ruling. Stephanie Petelos, a senior majoring in economics and environmental studies, thought sections of the Voting Rights Act were outdated and needed to be struck down.
“I think that giving states freedom and equality to govern themselves on this issue is important,” Petelos said. “These laws were necessary a few decades ago, but today, I am confident that fair and reasonable voting legislative will be passed by the states.”
Petelos, who is president of the UA College Republicans, said she hopes states previously under the Voting Rights Act will pass legislation to prevent voter fraud at the polls. She said it was unfair that certain states were singled out to report to the federal government while most others weren’t.
“It’s a great place that we live in that we can change laws and adapt as time changes,” she said. “At one point in time, there was oversight that was needed for voting legislation, but over the last 50 years, things have changed, and states deserve to be able to govern themselves.”
While some argue the Supreme Court’s decision was not determined by race, but was a matter of the states, others think racism is still an important issue today.
Utz McKnight, chair of the department of gender and race studies, said he took issues with the Supreme Court’s decision.
“The Supreme Court decision is problematic in my opinion on two counts, the first being the assumption that the changes in the social use of race in the last 50 years somehow negate the continuing impact of housing, education and employment racial segregation on voting patterns,” McKnight said. “Just because we can sit together at a table and eat or study together does not mean that race is no longer important as a marker of social, economic and political status and therefore different political interests. Having a black president does not eliminate the importance people place on race in their daily lives.”
In addition to declaring Section 4 of the Act was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court said Congress was responsible for deciding a new formula for the Act. If this happened, Congress would be in control of how elections occur, not the courts.
“Elected officials are part of the process, not outside the electoral system,” McKnight said. “Elections matter too much in our society to depend on elected officials and the established political parties to work against their own potential self-interest. The Voting Rights Act provided a foundation for racial equality in the electoral process because it was an attempt to mitigate the impact that race has on democratic politics in the society.”