By Sid Salter
OMAHA – The U.S. Supreme Court decision to strike down the current enforcement of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is one that is likely to stand without an answer from Congress for the foreseeable future.
In Mississippi, it means that changes in election law or election procedures as simple as moving a polling place just got easier and less costly. But it also guarantees that as black minorities in majority-white counties lose the protection of Section 5, so do white minorities in majority-black counties.
In places with a record of black-majority discrimination against white voters like Noxubee County, white minorities will miss the status quo in Section 5 as much as the black minorities will in some of the high white population hill counties. But the notion that Congress will fix Section 5 is almost laughable.
Congressional gridlock virtually guarantees no action. The inability of Congress to deal with relatively routine budget issues and to reach compromise on issues like immigration, the future of Social Security and other pressing matters of the public’s business makes the prospects for rewriting Section 5 as a truly national safeguard against voter discrimination is highly unlikely.
As noted in prior columns on this topic, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act fundamentally changed the composition of the elected leadership of the South and that the provision served its purpose in circumventing oppressive Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised black Southern voters from Reconstruction to the mid-1960s.
Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act established nine states that were declared “covered jurisdictions” under the new laws. “Covered jurisdiction” states, counties and municipalities cannot implement voting law changes without federal “preclearance” by the Justice Department. States included in the “covered jurisdiction” by the Voting Rights Act include: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
There are also counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota as well as some cities in Michigan and New Hampshire that are included.
The Voting Right Act provided extensive federal oversight of elections administration in states with “a history of discriminatory voting practices” (which the act specified as the ‘covered jurisdictions’) and despite the passage of 50 years, the highest percentage of black voters in the country, and the largest number of black elected officials of any state in the union, Mississippi election law changes are still subject to federal preclearance – just as they are in the rest of the “covered jurisdictions.” One needs look no deeper than the first 30 years of the Voting Rights Act’s existence in five Southern states to see its impact.
In Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas, the total increase in black elected officials between 1970 and 2000 was more than tenfold. In 2000, Mississippi and Alabama together had more black elected officials (1,628) than the entire nation had in 1970. In 1970, the 10 states with the highest number of black elected officials collectively had 821, while in 2000 the top 10 states had 5,887. The 10 states with the largest number of black elected officials in 2000 were: Mississippi (897), Alabama (731), Louisiana (701), Illinois (621), Georgia (582), South Carolina (540), Arkansas (502), North Carolina (498), Texas (475) and Michigan (340).
Section 5 has ignored those gains while voter discrimination is clearly evident in parts of the country that aren’t included in the “covered jurisdictions.” Because of that fact, Section 5 states chafed under the law while the U.S. Supreme Court previously wondered aloud whether the central provisions of the Voting Rights Act have begun to outlive their usefulness. Six states – Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas – asked the nation’s highest court to rule that all states have equal sovereignty in making election laws barring “compelling justification.”
This week, the court agreed that Section 5 must be a national approach rather than a narrowly drawn safeguard. The court invited Congress to draw a new formula.
There’s the rub. Maintaining the status quo in Section 5 has been a partisan issue for decades and continues to be perceived as such. That means that the Democratic Senate and the Republican House will see Section 5 changes as a practical political impossibility.
It’s debatable that the political climate that exists in 2013 is prima facie evidence that Section 5 enforcement is no longer necessary. But Section 5 indeed hampers Mississippi from making the same election laws as states that have a far less diverse electorate or slate of elected officials. The majority of the high court obviously saw Section 5 as granting partisan political advantage more than guaranteeing constitutional rights.
The initial response to the court’s decision bears that out. Slammed by Democrats and organized labor and praised by Republicans and pro-business groups, the future of Section 5 as a national rather than regional concept looks bleak indeed.
SID SALTER is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or email@example.com.