Beginning of End For Section 5?

So the U.S. Supreme Court granted cert today in a case in which an Alabama county is challenging the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog has the basic info:

Specially at issue is the constitutionality of the law’s Section 5, the most important provision, under which nine states and parts of seven others with a past history of racial bias in voting must get official clearance in Washington before they may put into effect any change in election laws or procedures, no matter how small. The Court came close to striking down that section three years ago, but instead sent Congress clear signals that it should update the law so that it reflects more recent conditions, especially in the South. Congress did nothing in reaction.

At MoJo, Adam Serwer sounds the alarm:

Although Section 5 survived in 2009, conservative Justices appeared to believe that the law was discriminatory—against Southern white people. “Is it your position that today Southerners are more likely to discriminate than Northerners?” Chief Justice John Roberts demanded of the attorney defending the Voting Rights Act at the time. Despite the 8-1 vote, the 2009 decision was widely seen as leaving Section 5 hanging by a thread. The justices hinted very strongly that Congress, which had just reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in its entirety in 2006, should change the law soon or risk it being declared unconstitutional next time around.

Now it looks like the conservatives on the court will get their chance.

The timing is certainly inappropriate, immediately after a national election in which Republican elected officials made the most concerted and open (if largely unsuccessful) effort to suppress minority voting in many years. It’s worth noting that Section 5 is not the entire VRA–and a good thing, too, since it doesn’t cover Ohio or Pennsylvania. But its continuing importance was illustrated most recently when a federal court would not allow Rick Scott to restrict early voting in those Florida counties covered by Section 5. It’s an essential part of the already limited machinery of voting rights in this country, and if Adam’s correct, it may take an entirely new–and perhaps national–effort to create something to take its place.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.