League opposes Voting Rights Act changes

The Marietta/Washington County League of Women Voters is joining with its national chapter in opposing any changes to the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965, a portion of which could be revoked pending an upcoming United States Supreme Court decision.

In late February the court heard arguments in the case of Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder in which the county of Shelby is challenging Section 5 of the law, the preclearance provision, which requires certain states, counties and townships with a history of discrimination to seek preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice before making any changes to voting requirements, district lines or polling locations.

“I really would hate to see Section 5 struck down by our supreme court,” said Betsy Cook, a member of the local League of Women Voters.

But Shelby County and other opponents of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act argue that the law unfairly targets certain jurisdictions who have long since moved past the restrictive voter tests that led to their inclusion in the provision nearly 50 years ago.

During oral arguments, Justice Antonin Scalia said the provision was an example of the “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”

And Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s likely swing vote, noted that “times change,” echoing the opinion of the four conservative justices who stated the law oversteps congressional bounds on state sovereignty and that many included jurisdictions no longer showing the same voter discrimination.

But proponents of Section 5 argue that voter discrimination is still seen, and that undoing the law would mean there is no wall in place to stop it.

“One of the things that could happen is that redistricting could be used to curtail voting rights,” explained Caroline Putnam, co-president of the Marietta/Washington County League of Women Voters.

In fact the city of Calera, which falls partly within Shelby County, violated the Voting Rights Act by doing just that in 2008. The Justice Department filed a complaint against the city for “numerous annexations and the 2008 redistricting plan,” which never received preclearance. The department also struck down the results of an election conducted under the newly drawn lines, which saw the city’s only African American city councilman lose his seat.

Overturning the preclearance requirements could also open the door for a new wave of inequality, said Cook.

“I think the concerns we had back in October and November as we were heading toward the election shows us there are still concerns with states trying to discriminate against voters,” she said.

For example said Putnam, “A number of states are asking for proof of citizenship.”

That proof comes in the form of a government issued ID, something that studies have shown African American, elderly and poor voters are categorically less likely to possess, said Cook.

Ohio was also the subject of controversy for its attempt to curtail pre-voting days.

But Ohio is not one of the 15 states which is affected by the preclearance provision. The court’s decision will not affect Ohio either way.

But still, said Cook, the law sets the tone for what jurisdictions can and can not do.

“I think maybe the law staying intact would make these groups that are trying to restrict voting rights, it would force them to explain their reasoning. The preclearance helps people to think about what they are doing,” she said.

The justices will likely return a decision on the case by the end of June.