Voting Rights Act Faces New Challenge


Forty-four years ago, the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices that opponents complained were deny the rights of African-Americans, was passed into law. It has since been repeatedly upheld by the United States Supreme Court. Currently, it is back before the justices again; this time, however the law is being challenged in a new environment, that of the first elected African-American president.

The provision being debated by the court is one which requires a town, especially one in which discriminatory practices were once commonplace, to seek approval from the Justice Department before changing any voting procedures, such as changing an elected board to an appointed board, or changing the location of a polling place.

Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Arizona, Texas, Virginia, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi are covered by the provision—in addition to parts of California, Florida, New York, New Hampshire, Michigan, South Dakota, and North Carolina.

The provision was heard by Congress for several weeks in 2006. At that time, Congress decided that even though the nation had gained a great deal of progress in terms of civil rights and non-discriminatory voting practices, it nevertheless was not sufficient to justify a lack of legislation about such practices.

Representative James Sensenbrenner, R-WI, who was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee when it oversaw the extension of the law, said, “The Voting Rights Act is the crown jewel of the American civil rights laws passed during the 20th century. Congress recognized that by huge bipartisan votes in both the House and the Senate.”

President Bush was quick to sign the bill once it passed the Senate 98-0 and the House 390-33. However, the controversy did not end there.

“It’s a scarlet letter that … declares that these people are not trustworthy to enact fair voting rights laws that will protect everybody’s right to vote,” says lawyer Gregory Coleman.

Georgia and Alabama are the only two states that have weighed in opposition to the law because they say that in a new century with the first black president, there is no need for a law based on a formula Congress drew up 25 years ago.

However, in places such as Mississippi and Alabama, the racial lines are still apparent. Supporters of the Voting Rights Act point to the fact that only 11% of white voters voted for Barack Obama in these states.

Several other states have filed briefs in the Supreme Court, calling the law effective, swift and efficient. They would like the high court to uphold the current law.

All arguments will be heard before the Supreme Court on Wednesday, as usual, but this time there are more conservatives on the court.


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