Trending Topics

Obama Tries to Ease Fears as Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Voting Rights

 President Obama yesterday attempted to ease fears that the Supreme Court is poised to strike down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act when it hears oral arguments next week in an Alabama case. Obama said  while he hopes the justices leave the law intact, voters still will have other means to ensure they aren’t discriminated against.

“I know in the past some folks have worried that if the Supreme Court strikes down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, they’re going to lose their right to vote. That’s not the case,” Obama said in an interview on SiriusXM with host Joe Madison. “People will still have the same rights not to be discriminated against when it comes to voting, you just won’t have this mechanism, this tool, that allows you to kind of stay ahead of certain practices.”

 The court on Wednesday will begin hearing a case known as Shelby County v. Holder, in which an Alabama county, supported by the national conservative movement, will argue that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Law is unconstitutional and should be thrown out.
Section 5 of the law mandates that officials in a “covered” jurisdiction must prove to the satisfaction of federal officials that a “proposed voting change does not deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.” Nine states — including Alabama, the home of Shelby County — are completely “covered” by the section, while five other states have only certain counties that are covered and two states have only certain townships covered.
The Voting Rights Act is “the most powerful and most effective civil rights law in U.S. history,” Laura Murphy, the ACLU’s legislative director who worked on the law’s re-authorization in 1982 and again in 2006, told reporters yesterday. And Section 5, she continued, is “the most important part of the law.”
It is ironic that the law is coming under challenge now because it has been used so frequently in recent years to stop Republican legislators from passing restrictive changes to the voting process — such as voter ID laws, purges of voting rolls, and reductions in early voting — that would likely impact black voters disproportionately.

Obama said earlier today that while Section 5 had been historically important in enfranchising African-American voters, “it’s not the only tool we have.”

“It’s a critical tool, it’s not the only tool,” the president said.

Obama added that the Supreme Court challenge underscored the need for federal voting guidelines, which he asked for in both his inaugural and State of the Union addresses.

“If we have some national guidelines and rules, working with states, counties to make sure that people aren’t waiting in line for six, seven hours, that there aren’t new tricks that discourage people from voting — if we’ve got those in place, then it’s obviously not as good as if we keep Section 5 of the voting rights in place, which I think we should, but I think it’s still possible obviously for us to make sure that everybody’s able to exercise their rights,” Obama said.

“Section 5 is the great stop sign, the great protector,” Barbara Arnwine, the president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, told reporters Thursday. “There is no other tool in the Voting Rights Act that is the equivalent of Section 5.”

A piece in The Atlantic points out that there is still “an astonishing level” of racial discrimination in voting laws.

Quoting from the legal papers filed by the federal government in the Shelby County case, The Atlantic said that since 1982, “… approximately 2,400 discriminatory voting changes had been blocked by more than 750 Section 5 objections, approximately 400 of which involved cases with specific evidence of intentional discrimination.”

Without Section 5, the government argued in the court papers, minority voters would have had to sue individually, at great cost of time and money, in some cases after having lost their right to vote.

Back to top