The United States Court of Appeals recently upheld the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 5, known as the “preclearance provision,” requires that areas with a history of voting discrimination obtain federal permission from the U.S. Department of Justice or the Washington, D.C. District Court before changing any voting practices and procedures. Section 5 ensures that states’ changes in voting procedures in these areas are free from discrimination. The section was extended by Congress in 2006 for another 25 years; however, the necessity and constitutionality of Section 5 were challenged in April 2010 in the court case Shelby County, Alabama vs. Holder.
Shelby County, a predominately White suburb of Birmingham, filed suit in federal court in Washington, D.C., asking that Section 5 of the voting rights act be declared unconstitutional and arguing that Congress did not have the authority to reauthorize Section 5 for another 25 years.
On Aug. 25, 2011, the Lawyers Committee, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) intervened in the case. These non-profit organizations provide legal services to protect voters from discrimination, and stepped in to defend the necessity of Section 5.
The Lawyer’s Committee also assisted in Congress’ previous decision in 2006 to extend Section 5 by providing a detailed report on the voting discrimination in the areas under the section’s jurisdiction.
On Sept. 21, 2011, the U.S. District of Court in D.C. declared Section 5 constitutional, against Shelby County’s challenge. Shelby County then filed an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals.
However, the Court of Appeals stood by the District Courts decision.
Despite the claims of Section 5 being outdated or unnecessary, Shelby County has had a recent history of voting discrimination. The City of Calera, located within Shelby County, enacted a redistricting plan in 2006 without the required federal preclearance. This redistricting caused the loss of the city’s sole African American councilman, Ernest Montgomery. However, because the city did not comply with Section 5, a reelection was required, using a nondiscriminatory redistricting plan, and Councilman Montgomery regained his seat. “The recent efforts to suppress minority voters make it crystal clear that we still need this over protection,” says Debo P. Adegbile, LDF interim president and director-counsel. “Section 5 promotes political inclusion against persisting attempts to practice exclusion.”