The Supreme Court Battle Over the Voting Rights Act


Latin@s and African Americans have historically experienced wide-scale discrimination in voting.  This discrimination has taken the form of poll taxes, racial gerrymandering, all white primaries, and prohibitions against interpreters at the polls.  Lest you think such discrimination is an artifact of the distant past, as recently as August 28, 2012 (yes, just six months ago), the state of Texas was found guilty of racial gerrymandering.  Texas was found guilty of deliberately drawing district boundaries in such a way as to weaken the voting power of democratic-leaning Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans.   In so doing, Texas violated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  In its comments upon the case, the League of Women Voters denounced the Texas plan as “the most extreme example of racial gerrymandering among all the redistricting proposals passed by lawmakers so far this year.”
     Just yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case which seeks to overturn—yes you guessed it—Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.   According to Section 5, jurisdictions with a history of constructing voting barriers against racial minorities need federal authorization before they can implement certain voting changes.  A state or local jurisdiction can get off this “pre-clearance list” by demonstrating a 10-year clean record of no racist violations in voting practices.
     Guess which states are part of the racist voting list?  Texas, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and most of Virginia.  I can’t help but notice that many of these states have also recently passed some of the most racist, anti-immigrant laws in the nation.
     The current lawsuit before the Supreme Court was brought by Shelby County, Alabama.   Shelby County is still on “the list” because it cannot demonstrate a clean record of 10 years.  As an example, the city of Calera, which is located within Shelby County was found guilty of redrawing its city council districts in such a way as to prevent the reelection of the municipality’s only black city council member.   Latina Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor—the first Latin@ member of the U.S. Supreme Court—did not miss this irony. In yesterday’s hearing she said: "Some parts of the South have changed. Your county pretty much hasn't," said Sotomayor. "You may be the wrong party bringing this."
     Opponents of Section 5 say that racism in voting is no longer a big problem in the United States.  Super conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has even said that Section 5 results in the “perpetuation of a racial entitlement”—i.e., that it results in black and brown politicians and constituencies feeling “entitled” to have voting districts which reflect their cultural communities.  To that I say.  Damn straight.  We have been locked out of the political structures of the U.S. for the past two hundred years because of outright racism.  This has resulted in the creation of hundreds of laws and policies which have oppressed and handicapped our communities—in law, education, healthcare, media, you name it.  We are just now starting to gain political recognition and a meaningful hearing in the public square. And now you want to tie our hands behind our back again?  No way Scalia and Roberts.  No way.
     Racism is still alive and well.  You may not see it, because it doesn’t affect you.  Come to our communities. Come to our homes.  Come to our schools and hospitals and cities.  We are still deeply impacted by decades of discrimination—past and present—and we need to be able to elect leaders who understand how what we’ve been through still affects where we are today, and leaders who understand our current realities.   Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is necessary to preserve the small political voice we have recently gained, and to ensure that our voice continues to be heard.     Let's pray for justice in the Supreme Court,
Robert Chao Romero