Election day is months behind us but the issue of voting rights has once again become a ‘hot topic’. Tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the Voting Rights Act case, Shelby County v. Holder. At issue in this case is whether the decision made by Congress in 2006 to reauthorise one portion of the Act in particular, Section 5, has exceeded its authority under the 14th and 15th amendments (equal protection and voting privileges), thereby violating the 10th amendment (state sovereignty) of the U.S. Constitution. What does all of that mean? It means that this case is critical; this case challenges the constitutionality of the “pre-clearance requirement” of the Act, which has been in place since 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
The lawsuit explicitly wants Section 5 tossed out of existence. Its pre-clearance provision mandates that states receive clearance from the Justice Department before making any changes in voting procedures. State attorneys general, in several states, have endorsed the Alabama County’s challenge, claiming that times have changed and racism and other biased and/or harmful factors that made pre-clearance necessary no longer exist.
The Shelby County case is yet another example of the Republican Party’s alternate universe on display for all to see. Various GOP governors and others state-level officials claim the Act’s provision is outdated, unnecessary and, using they are using the same argument they’ve been using to keep unfair laws on the books: they claim it’s an intrusion into state’s rights by the federal government.
A little background. Years ago, when it was still possible to get a few things done in Washington, Democrats and Republicans actually seemed to be in agreement on the Voting Rights Act. Fast forward to recent history; the Republican Party has been taken over by players on the fringes of the right. During the presidential elections of 2008 and again in 2012, voter suppression tactics – including onerous Voter ID legislation and restrictive changes to voting hours and access – were as much a part of centre stage as the respective presidential candidates’ platforms. With efforts from the right to suppress votes came legal challenges to section 5 of the VRA. Challenges increased; the total challenges during the past two years is greater than all legal challenges filed during the past 40 years as the right has sought to break down voter protections. Now, the outcome of this case will let us know the Supreme Court’s opinion as to how much protection voters still need all these years after the Act was passed.
As is the case with the GOP’s ‘War on Women‘ in the form of attacks against reproductive freedom and the ability of women to make their own health choices, and its war on science and education, this is another case where the GOP should be ashamed of itself. Voting is a right enjoyed by citizens, and citizens have every right to expect that their vote will count fairly. Without the protections afforded by the VRA — especially given that the impact of the disastrous Citizens United (i.e., ‘unlimited campaign contributions are free speech’) decision will be felt in elections for years to come — the nation will sink further into the very thing it criticises. Without the provisions of the VRA intact, the U.S. will become a ‘Banana Republic’ — one of those places in need of external and neutral oversight during political elections.
Shame on the Supreme Court if they don’t acknowledge that elections and the voting process itself is still not as fair as it should be.