The U.S. Supreme Court will hear next week a lawsuit to overturn a portion of the Voting Rights Act that alleges Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is an undue burden on a small number of states and should be overturned.
In Shelby County, Ala. vs. Holder, the plaintiff argues that while the section requiring federal preclearance of changes to election law once served a viable purpose, it is far more punitive to the states covered by preclearance requirements than it is helpful.
The federal government says preclearance is still necessary to protect minorities from being excluded from the voting process, and there have been many exemptions for local governments issued in past years. These exemptions, known as bailouts, remove any preclearance obligation for cities or counties going forward.
Section 5 forces nine states with a history of racial discrimination - Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia - and municipalities in seven others to get federal approval for any changes in voting procedures. Debo Adegbile, a civil rights lawyer who will help defend the law in court alongside the Justice Department, calls it "perhaps the mothership of congressional civil rights statutes."
If a state’s Voter ID law meets all the requirements of Section 5, then it should receive preclearance.
Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, who is a likely candidate for attorney general in 2016, goes a step further, saying Section 2, which prohibits discriminatory voting practices, should be sufficient to protect voters today.
Baker says his main concern is that preclearance requirements are costly for local governments. A former attorney for the city of Brandon, Baker said cities and counties can spend more preparing preclearance packets for the U.S. Justice Department than they do on redistricting. Section 5 also prevents local governments from making needed changes because of those costs, such as moving a polling place across the street to utilize a better building.
The upcoming Supreme Court decision is hugely important, and it seems to have escaped the attention it probably deserves. Perhaps as it moves forward, more people will get interested.