The long march toward political
equality for Blacks and other people of color recorded an important
victory May 30, 2008 when a three-judge federal court in Washington,
D.C., upheld Congress’ recent 25-year extension
of Section 5, a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Voting Rights Act of
1965, the crown jewel of American democracy, is the most effective
tool for protecting minority voters against persistent and constantly
shifting techniques that impede minority voting strength. Section
5 of the Voting Rights Act covers the entire state of Texas and all or part of 15 other jurisdictions
with a well-documented history of voting discrimination. As
a covered jurisdiction, Texas
must submit all proposed voting changes in the State to the
Department of Justice or a federal court for pre-clearance before
the changes can take effect.
The case decided last week,
Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v.
Mukasey, was filed by a small utility district in Austin,
Texas just days after Congress overwhelmingly voted to reauthorize
the federal oversight provisions of the Voting Rights Act in
the summer of 2006.
The utility district argued
that it was entitled to “bailout” or seek exemption from coverage
under Section 5 and that Congress did not have the power to
enact the extension. The
utility district also maintained that discrimination in voting
rights does not exist today as it did in 1965 and that continued
coverage imposed a “badge of shame”.
The Court rejected both
arguments, holding that the utility district was not eligible
for a bailout because that opportunity is limited to jurisdictions
that conduct voter registration, which the utility district
does not do.
In rejecting the utility
district’s second argument, the Court disagreed with the contention
that racial discrimination in voting does not persist in the
modern day. “This case implicates Congress’s express constitutional
authority to remedy racial discrimination in voting” under the
Fifteenth Amendment, the Court maintained, and “given the extensive
legislative record documenting contemporary racial discrimination
in voting in covered jurisdictions, Congress’s decision to extend
Section 5 for another twenty-five years was constitutional.”
As the Court recognized,
the record in the case, which spans more than 16,000 pages,
documents the essential role that the VRA plays in pursuing
political equality for minorities.
record contains numerous examples of Section 5’s role in barring
and deterring voting changes that would have been harmful to
minorities. For example, since the VRA’s passage, every plan
initially submitted by Louisiana
to redraw districts for the State's House of Representatives
has been rejected by a federal court and/or the Department of
Justice, and frequently challenged by civil rights groups as
discriminatory. Without Section 5, the burden of proof that
a new voting law will not weaken African-American voting strength,
whether intended or not, would shift from the state or local
government to the people whose collective voice would be lost
at the polls before a remedy could be implemented.
More broadly, as a result
of the VRA, the number of Black elected officials in this country
increased nearly fivefold within five years after its passage.
Today, there are over 9,000 Black elected officials, 43 of whom
serve in Congress. Most of these officials are elected from
districts created or protected under the VRA where minorities
form a majority of the voters. Moreover, as a sign of continuing
progress, the sole Black member of the US Senate made history
this week by becoming the first Black Democratic Nominee for
the President of the United States.
These are accomplishments
of which we as a nation can be proud.
remains to be done, however, is as daunting as the advances
in the march toward political equality have been great. As we
celebrate the Court’s important ruling here, which likely will
be appealed to the Supreme Court, a continued threat to roll
back the accomplishments of the VRA stands before us. To be
sure, other challenges like those launched by the utility district
in Texas will be mounted.
In addition, jurisdictions
will likely continue to resort to increasingly sophisticated
tools and devices to restrict the rights of minority voters
including the adoption of restrictive government-identification
requirements, intimidation, deceptive practices, purging of
voter rolls, and aggressive challenges inside the polls on Election
must vigilantly defend against those attacks while ensuring
that Section 5 is vigorously enforced as a tool to block threats
to the fragile gains that have been made on behalf of African
We owe it those whose human
sacrifice led to the passage of the VRA and to the future of
American democracy to continue the march toward the fulfillment
and protection of the VRA, both in the courts and in our communities.
BlackCommentator.com Guest Commentator, Ryan Paul Haygood, is a resident
of Newark's South Ward and a civil rights attorney in New York
City and an Assistant Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and
Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF).
As Co-Director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s
(LDF) Political Participation Group, he, along with a team of
the nation’s leading civil rights organizations and a leading
Washington law firm, defended the Voting Rights Act of 1965
before three federal judges in the Nation's Capitol. Click here
to contact Mr. Haygood.