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BLAWg In Bloom

The Indiana Law Library Blog

Shelby County and the Voting Rights Act

Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments in the Shelby v. Holder case.  Shelby County, Alabama is challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.  In 1965 the Act was created to prevent discrimination in the voting process.  Prior to the VRA there were several practices designed to disenfranchise minority voters, particularly literacy tests.  Section 4(b) of the VRA identified states and political subdivisions that were particularly at risk for voting discrimination—states that had some sort of discriminatory voting practice in place and very low voter turnout.  Most of these states were in the South.  Section 5, meanwhile, requires “preclearance”—that is, if any of the states or political subdivisions wanted to change their election laws, they had to clear it with either the Attorney General or the D.C. District Court.  In 2006, Congress renewed this provision for another 25 years.

Voting districts do have the option of asking for a “bailout” which would release them from the preclearance requirement, but while this was deemed sufficient in a precursor to Shelby, the NAMUDNO v. Holder case, it still remains a question—is this constitutional? Shelby County argues no—it gives the federal government too much power over state and local elections, and is it relevant 50 years later? On the other side, the federal government argues that we still need protections against racial discrimination, and that Congress was very careful and thorough in its research when it renewed the provision.

What do you think?  Is Section 5 unconstitutional? The Justices of the Supreme Court were themselves vocal during the argument, this article discusses their opinions.  For more on the Shelby case, see the coverage at SCOTUSblog, and the Oyez page.

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