Shelby County v. Holder Targets the Heart of American Democracy

The Supreme Court must realize voter discrimination persists to the point that legal protections must remain to prevent it.

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Voters in Washington, DC during the 2008 Potomac Primary.

Today, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Shelby County v. Holder, a case concerning the constitutionality of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark law that outlawed discriminatory voting practices that disenfranchised African-Americans.

Shelby Country lies just south of Birmingham, Ala. One of its largest tourist attractions is the American Village, a nationally recognized citizenship education center whose mission is to teach visitors good citizenship and remind them of the price of liberty—that freedom isn't free.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Shelby County wants the Supreme Court to declare a part of Section 4 and Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. Section 4b codifies a formula to identify parts of the country where political discrimination based on race is high. Section 5 requires the Justice Department to "preclear" any changes to voting rules made in nine states, mostly in the South, and by areas in seven others.

The justices will consider an ultimate constitutional question: Does voter discrimination persist to the point where legal protections must remain in place to prevent it? The question, of course is rhetorical. It does. We only need to look at the long list of recent state-level legislative activity, both in and out of the South, that targets minority voters. Just in the last decade, lawmakers have broken up majority-minority districts with questionable redistricting practices. African-American and Latino voters have seen their names purged from voter lists under the guise that election officials were cleaning them up, and restrictive voter ID laws implemented. Laws, some argue, are the modern day equivalent of poll taxes.

If today was opposite day, Shelby County's case would have merit. They'd rightly argue that voting rights are color-blind. But it isn't be opposite day, nor will that be the case for a long time to come. Shelby County ignores this fact. It forgets about Alabama's long history of using violence fraud, poll taxes, and literacy tests to keep African-American's from the polls.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Photo ID Be Required to Vote?]

The justices must avoid the same amnesia. In 2006, the House of Representatives voted 390-to-33 and the Senate 98-to-zero to renew the Voting Rights Act until 2031. These lawmakers, after a significant amount of testimony and impassioned debate, recognized that the threat of disenfranchisement persists. Some of the justices, however, have already signaled that it doesn't. Justice Anthony Kennedy has questioned the fairness of the Voting Rights Act, and Justice Clarence Thomas has said flat out said that it's unconstitutional.

Shelby County v. Holder targets the very heart of American democracy. If the justices rule in Shelby County's favor, the right to vote will most certainly not be free. The American Village will have one more reminder to give its visitors.

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