Here we go again. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is on stage once more.
This time a case emanating from Shelby County, Ala., serves as the vehicle for challenging the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This section requires that any change in any aspect of voting procedures of a jurisdiction must be approved by the United States Justice Department before such a change can go into effect. The catch is that Section 5 only applies to certain states or parts of states with significant minority population and a history of racial discrimination. These include most states of the “old Confederate South” and certain counties in a few other states such as California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.
With each passing year the resentment of many in those states known as the “Voting Rights Act States” seems to increase. Being singled out and ridiculed for conditions that they believe have sufficiently changed is wearing thin with many in the affected states. Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said as much recently when he was quoted in USA Today as stating that in “…over 50 years, we’ve gotten that behind us.” Barbour went on to make a case for equal treatment of all states when he said, “The same rules ought to apply to Massachusetts, Minnesota and Montana that apply to Mississippi.”
This line of thinking is one that has often been employed in the past to convince others that they would also resent abiding by such a selective law, and that it should thus be eliminated altogether. However, it would seem that the ideal solution in today’s political environment would be to take Gov. Barbour at his word. Rather than kill the Voting Rights Act and Section 5 along with it, simply extend the VRA to the entirety of all 50 states.
Indeed a case can be made that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is more necessary now than at any time in recent years. How can such a statement be justified? While the days of overt discriminatory action simply to deny one segment of the population access to the ballot box are past, the modern era of custom-designed electoral districts using racial demographics as markers for shaping those districts makes it very likely that inadvertent discrimination can and likely has occurred.
The process of redistricting Congressional and state legislative districts is arguably one of the most competitive political battles that can be fought. The stakes are high for either party. Republicans have struggled in recent national elections to attract support of African-American and Hispanic voters, but they have been quite successful in their efforts to gain control of legislatures and governor’s mansions. In fact, Republicans have laid claim to 30 state legislatures and 30 governors’ seats following recent elections. These are the keys to controlling congressional and legislative redistricting. Both the Democrats and Republicans have plumbed the depths of computer and mapping technology to ensure that their efforts yield districts favorable to the party in power.
A recent case in Texas is often cited as an example of this very scenario. Between the 2000 and 2010 censuses Texas had a 4.3 million population gain. Nearly 90 percent of this growth came from minorities. Texas gained four congressional seats. When the Republican-majority Texas Legislature completed redistricting, the population growth from the largely Democratic-leaning minority yielded three Republican-dominated districts out of the four new districts. The Texas redistricting plan was held by the U.S. Justice Department to be in violation of Section 5, and a three-judge federal court panel in Washington concurred. This was not an overt attempt to discriminate, but rather an effort by the party in power to further enhance its policymaking power.
Some two dozen states across the country are at some stage of addressing changes in their voting procedures. Many of these states are out of reach of the geographically-defined Voting Rights Act coverage, yet many of the factors that may be impacted by these new laws may be race-related.
The 15th amendment to the United States Constitution is quite clear on this matter. After affirming that the right of all citizens to vote regardless of race or prior condition of servitude, Section 2 states that, “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” In its most recent vote on reauthorization in 2007, the Voting Rights Act passed by a vote of 98-0 in the U.S. Senate and 390-33 in the House of Representatives. Twenty-five years earlier in 1982, Mississippi Sen. John C. Stennis became one of the first Southern senators to vote for the 25-year renewal of the Act.
Given the continued importance of guaranteeing that every citizen’s vote counts the same, it would be a reasonable approach to take Gov. Barbour up on his suggestion that the Section 5 provisions of the Voting Rights Act be extended to all 50 states. With the nation steadily approaching a time where there will not be a majority population, federal oversight to ensure that all minorities are treated equally as political forces jockey for position seems only reasonable.
Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.