By Kent Willis, Executive DirectorYesterday, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia rejected a legal challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. It may not seem like a big deal that a federal court has upheld one section of an expansive civil rights law that has been around for 46 years – and it is certainly not making headlines.
But this is a big deal. And, every person who cares about racial justice in the United States should be celebrating.
When the Voting Right Act was passed by Congress in 1965, it was hailed as the one of most important civil rights laws ever. Coming on the heels of Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it prohibited race discrimination in matters related to voting, knocking Jim Crow from his most comfortable perch. Famously, it banned poll taxes and literacy tests, which had long been used to suppress the minority vote, and it provided minority communities with a mechanism for mounting legal challenges to election schemes, or any voting practices for that matter, designed to diminish minority voting strength.
Quietly, but perhaps most importantly, the Voting Rights Act also created new federal oversight of election practices. This was Section 5, and it meant that any jurisdiction with a history of voting discrimination -- which was almost all of the South but also other places scattered across the country -- would have to get an okay from the Department of Justice for any changes made to voting plans to make sure they were not discriminatory.
Because of Section 5, every jurisdiction in Virginia (except for handful that have been given a special exemption) must submit to the Department of Justice for “ preclearance” every proposed voting change, whether it is the simple moving of a polling place from one block to another or the redrawing of election district lines.
It’s really not that hard to do, and if a jurisdiction is not trying to discriminate against minority voters, it is practically a rubber-stamp process. Section 5, however, is despised by public officials in Virginia and other southern states probably more for the principle it represents than for the minor inconveniences it creates.
The Department of Justice has used Section 5 to reject racially discriminatory proposals more than one thousand times since 1965. More importantly, though, it has probably preempted tens of thousands more after public officials paused to consider the consequences before submitting their proposals.
The case challenging the constitutionality of Section 5 was brought last year by Shelby County, Alabama, a predominately white suburb of Birmingham. Shelby County’s lawyers claimed that Congress did not have the authority to reauthorize Section 5 in 2006 because there was little evidence that race discrimination still existed to the degree necessary to justify such federal oversight.
But Congress and others had done a masterful job of collecting testimony on the continuing threat of race discrimination in the areas of the country covered by Section 5. I am proud to say that the ACLU of Virginia was one of the organizations to offer testimony on the continued existence of discrimination in Virginia and the need to keep Section 5.
For now, Section 5 and a strong Voting Rights Act are still with us. You won’t see much in the newspaper about Section 5’s survival, and you won’t hear much about the day-to-day monitoring of election plans by the Department of Justice. But I can tell you from firsthand experience in Virginia that it makes an enormous difference.
So in the future, whenever you read that a local voting official or legislator is complaining about the burden of filing papers with the Department of Justice, keep in mind that this is good thing and that we are a more just society because of it.