By Sid Salter
In the wake of the 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court that held that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional unless it was retooled by Congress as a national safeguard against the denial of voting rights rather than as a regional safeguard applied primarily in the South, the argument has been put forth that the true test of equal voting rights in Mississippi is whether a qualified black candidate can be elected to statewide office.
Is that really what Section 5 was developed to guarantee? Was the Voting Rights Act a vehicle to equal access to the right to vote and the ability to have fair legislative districts drawn or was it a vehicle designed to guarantee partisan or racial outcomes at the ballot box?
First, the message that the Section 5 decision represents a situation in which “the sky is falling” on hard-won civil rights gains in Mississippi, the South and the nation at large is simply not factual.
There are other sections of the Voting Rights Act that will allow aggrieved parties or those who believe they are being denied their voting rights to take their concerns to court. The Justice Department maintains a number of proactive steps they can take to combat voter discrimination.
In particular, Section 2 prohibits minority vote dilution by tactics, legislation, or situations that weaken the voting strength of minorities. Section 2 prevents municipalities from enacting practices designed to give minorities an unfair disadvantage in electing candidates of their choice and has been ruled to be enforceable nationwide.
Another important 1975 amendment to Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act provided that proof of discriminatory purpose or intent was not required under a Section 2 claim. So the notion that the Section 5 ruling guts federal protection of voting rights is overstated.
But the reality of Mississippi politics likewise contradicts the claim that racial discrimination will increase in the South because of the lack of Section 5. One needs look no farther than my hometown of Philadelphia, Miss.
Along with Oxford, Laurel, Poplarville and other locations in Mississippi and Little Rock, Ark., Statesboro, Ga., and Birmingham and Selma, Ala., Philadelphia became one of those signpost towns on the path to civil rights in this nation that bore permanent scars.
Yet in 2013, Philadelphia – now one of Mississippi’s most diverse and progressive towns – still has a slight white majority but has just re-elected African-American Mayor James Young to a second term.
The claim that Mississippi has yet to elect an African- American candidate to statewide office is true, but is that fact demonstrative of lax enforcement of voting rights or a choice made by the majority of the state’s voters? Just as the whole of the United States never elected a black man president until 2008 and has never elected a woman or a Hispanic or Asian, Mississippians have yet to identify a minority candidate that they choose to elect to statewide office. But they eventually will in the future.
Section 5 was not intended to guarantee partisan or racial outcomes in elections. It was intended to give everyone an equal chance at the starting line in fair districts in elections held under fair rules and procedures. It was meant to put federal muscle behind ensuring all who were eligible to vote could do so.
James Young’s election in Philadelphia was no fluke and no accident. Twice now, in a town with a difficult past, majority white voters have chosen to elect a minority candidate as their mayor.
At American Legion Boys State earlier this year, I watched a vast white majority of Mississippi young men elect a black young man their governor after he stood in the arena and successfully competed for the job. That’s Mississippi’s future and it looks both fair and bright and it doesn’t require federal oversight.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.