The Supreme Court’s order on Monday upholding a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensures no abrupt abandonment of the act’s requirements and that case-by-case examination remains the standard.
Mississippians need only look around them at elected offices from county supervisory beats to the congressional delegation for proof of the Voting Rights Act’s power to transform elections.
The Voting Rights Act swept away nearly a century of denied electoral rights for millions of black citizens, mostly in the South, and was a companion to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It placed Mississippi and six other states wholly under the mandates of Section 5, requiring pre-clearance by the federal government of any changes in voting laws and procedures. Section 5 is considered the central provision of the act, and in addition to Mississippi, applies to Virginia, Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and Texas, and parts of seven other states. The connection of the covered southern states with a history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and mandated segregation in every sphere of life is not coincidental.
Before the act passed, Mississippi had not elected African-Americans to local, state or federal office since Reconstruction, the period of federal oversight of former Confederate states following the Civil War. Today, in contrast to pre-act politics, Mississippi has almost 500 black officeholders, including 49 legislators and an African-American congressman.
“The historic accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act are undeniable,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the court’s 8-1 majority decision. “When it was first passed, unconstitutional discrimination was rampant and the ‘registration of voting-age whites ran roughly 50 percentage points or more ahead’ of black registration in many covered states.”
While not striking down Section 5, the court ruled that a small Texas water district whose challenge to Section 5 led to Monday’s ruling – and by implication some other of the 12,000 affected political units – should have an easier time applying for and obtaining exemption, or getting a “bail out.”
The court said the act “also differentiates between the states in ways that may no longer be justified.” However, it left that issue, deemed too important for a rushed decision, for another day.
In a fuller measure of elapsed time, 44 years of voting law enforcement is modest, and arguably still necessary.
If jurisdictions are allowed to “bail out” of Section 5 provisions they should be required to prove a pattern of nondiscrimination as strong as the pattern of discrimination that placed them under the act’s coverage.
NEMS Daily Journal