There is no question that the country has made much progress in moving beyond racial discrimination since the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965 to enure that all Americans are freely able to exercise their right to vote.
The U.S. Supreme Court last week heard a challenge to one of the key provisions of that law, Section 5, which requires states with a history of discrimination – mainly in the South – to get federal approval before making changes in the way elections are held. The requirement applies to Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia and parts of seven other states, including North Carolina.
The law is being challenged by Shelby County, Ala., which said that its federal preclearance requirement under Section 5 has outlived its usefulness because “the problem to which the Voting Rights Act was addressed is solved.”
Attorneys for the Obama administration who are defending the law came under some tough and skeptical questioning from the high court’s most conservative members – especially from Justice Antonin Scalia, who inexplicably observed that the law amounted to a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
Much has changed since the Voting Rights Act was approved by Congress – poll taxes, literacy tests and other state-sponsored discriminatory tactics have been abolished, the election of black candidates has become the norm across the nation – including the South – and voter turnout among minorities matches and even exceeds turnout among whites in some jurisdictions.
But efforts to suppress the minority vote continue to this day. Voting rights lawsuits are still the norm rather than the exception in states such as Alabama. Poor, minority neighborhoods have fewer polling places with much longer lines than affluent white suburbs – the 2012 elections provided ample evidence of that.
While we look forward to the day when Section 5 will no longer be needed, that day is still a long way off.