“After enduring nearly a century of systematic resistance to the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress might well decide to shift the advantage of time and inertia from the perpetrators of evil to its victims,” wrote former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren in the Court’s decision on South Carolina v. Katzenbach in 1966.
It’s not too hard to puzzle out. The perpetrators here are discriminatory state and local governments, and the victims are minority voters deprived of a voice at the polls. On paper, the Fifteenth Amendment enshrined the right of all Americans to vote regardless of color. But in practice, the altered Constitution did not stop local legislators from twisting their voting codes to shut African Americans out of the political process. It was not until nearly a century later, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, that what was once only a theoretical right became reality.
The Voting Rights Act, widely hailed as a watershed piece of legislation, changed our country’s political landscape in a profound and lasting way. In fact, Congress considered the law effective and necessary enough to renew all of its special provisions in 1970, 1975, 1982, and most recently, in 2006, for another 25 years. Next Wednesday, however, the Supreme Court will hear Shelby County v. Holder and may well strike down Section 5, the heart of the act. It shouldn’t.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act identifies nine states—Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia—and a number of counties and municipalities in other states with a history of discrimination and declares them “covered jurisdictions.” These covered jurisdictions cannot alter their voting policies without first appealing to the Department of Justice or to a federal court for “preclearance.”
Prior to Section 5’s passage, the government scrambled to keep pace with officials meddling with voting laws by suing case by case, state by state. But those officials shifted discriminatory tactics constantly, and the government fell behind. Section 5 put an end to that. But now, some claim that our nation’s transition to what they see as a post-racial age has rendered the Voting Rights Act irrelevant.
Opponents of Section 5, like Shelby County, Alabama, see the provision as an un-American infringement on state sovereignty. Their argument has some force: Holding state policy hostage to federal approval does not jibe with the federalist ideals that define our Constitution. Indeed, if we truly did live in a land where race had faded into the background and discrimination disintegrated with it, the government could not justify stepping on states’ toes any longer.
Yet we do not live in a land where race has faded to the background and discrimination with it. Yes, the U.S. has made great strides since 1965. And yes, its citizens have reelected a black man to sit in the Oval Office. But no, racial prejudice is not a thing of the past.
Congress did not extend Section 5 in 2006 based on a hunch. Rather, legislators held 21 hearings and amassed over 15,000 pages of evidence chronicling ongoing voting discrimination in covered jurisdictions. In Evergreen, Alabama, only hours from Shelby County, 74-year-old Jerome Grey nearly missed his chance to vote this past election. The local government had attempted to remove him and 800 others from the voting rolls when they failed to meet certain utility requirements—measures of wealth eerily reminiscent of poll taxes during the Jim Crow era. Luckily, Section 5 blocked the change.
Federalism is an essential part of the United States’ political tradition. But ensuring a vital democracy must trump states’ rights. The threat of discrimination still looms large over countless Americans, and when that discrimination prevents or dilutes minority votes, the democratic process begins to break down.
As the Court said in Yick Wo v. Hopkins years ago, the right to vote is “a fundamental political right, because [it is] preservative of all rights.” In other words, if a citizen cannot choose who represents him, he has no power to ensure that the laws his government enacts treat him fairly. When that citizen is a member of a class that has historically been excluded from the political process, the need to protect his voting rights is particularly pressing. That’s exactly why the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments allow Congress the authority to enforce equality under the law through “appropriate legislation”—legislation like the Voting Rights Act.
President Johnson called the Voting Rights Act “a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield.” A Supreme Court ruling that gutted the act would be a defeat of equal magnitude.
Molly L. Roberts ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Holworthy Hall. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.