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Federal Court Upholds Constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act

Katie O'Connor,
Voting Rights Project
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September 21, 2011

In a 151-page opinion released today, a federal judge upheld the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires states with a history of voter suppression to seek approval before implementing changes to their voting laws.

Shelby County, Alabama, argued that the law exceeded Congress’s authority to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The ACLU intervened in the case on behalf of individuals who wanted to defend the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. U.S. District Judge John Bates held that Congress’s 2006 reauthorization of the Act’s Section 5 was rife with evidence of discriminatory voting laws.

The court rightfully noted that the past 25 years have provided ample evidence of discrimination against minority voters. The judge cited a 1991 incident in which Mississippi state legislators opposed a plan that would strengthen minority voting rights, referring to the plan as the “black plan” and privately as “the n-plan.” The court also cited an incident where the chairman of the Georgia House Reapportionment Committee told his colleagues, “The Justice Department is trying to make us draw nigger districts and I don't want to draw nigger districts.” The court ultimately concluded that the reauthorization of Section 5 was a “congruent and proportional remedy” to the discriminatory behavior that filled the more than 15,000 pages of legislative history.

And so, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act lives to see another day!

In fact, the need for Section 5 is perhaps greater now than it has been in decades. This year, we saw a flood of discriminatory voter suppression efforts across the country. Over 30 states considered stricter voter ID laws. Five states passed laws requiring photo identification of every voter for every election, without exception, joining Georgia and Indiana. But it didn’t stop at voter ID. Seven states shortened early voting periods. Two state legislatures voted to repeal Election Day registration laws (fortunately, one of those states’ governors, Brian Schweitzer of Montana, vetoed the legislation). Florida passed legislation making it much more difficult for third-party organizations to register voters. Three additional states will now require proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. All of these measures have been shown to disproportionately affect minorities, students, the elderly and the disabled.

Because of today’s decision, Florida will have to prove that its third-party registration law is not discriminatory. Texas and South Carolina will have to show that their voter ID laws are not discriminatory. Alabama will have to confirm that its proof-of-citizenship requirement for voter registration does not negatively affect minorities. And many states will have to demonstrate that their redistricting plans do not abridge the right of racial or language minorities to vote. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act rightfully made it the state’s burden to prove that a law does not suppress minority votes. The necessity of Section 5 is reaffirmed by the surge of voter suppression laws we are now seeing nationwide. Hopefully, we will soon be reminded of the effectiveness of the law.

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